Tag Archives: Gabriel

Bonus #32: Deathspeaker, part 4

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

“It really is the worst, isn’t it?” Arquin asked him in a low voice half an hour later.

Aresk turned to him, grunting with an upward inflection.

“Being useless,” the human said dryly, tilting his head at the two shaman at work. “There’s not a lot I hate more than standing around, watching people do the work. Not being able to contribute.”

“You keep blurting out things that make you sound almost like an orc,” Aresk grumbled. “It’s…disorienting. Anyway, this is a time for shaman magic, so…the shaman have to do it, and we have to watch. Shou ga nai.”

“C’est la vie,” Arquin replied lightly, and Aresk shot him an irritated look. He didn’t speak any Tanglish, and didn’t understand why the magic sword hadn’t translated that piece.

Raghann and Gairan were on their knees on the path to the shrine, facing it, with a cleared space around them laid out for their ritual purposes. Arquin had been intrigued that they had used chalk and dust to draw lines radiating from their position to various totems laid out around them, rather than defining a boundary circle. Talk of magic went over Aresk’s head, not to mention boring him, but fortunately and Raghann had peremptorily instructed Arquin to hush. At least the two of them were not alone in being excluded; the pair of robed death priests now lurked by the archway and the stairs, and the Battle Sisters had been called up to the shrine grounds to stand in a horseshoe formation around the ongoing magic.

Kyomi had her own respectful bubble of space off to the side, and simply stood in serene quiet. Aresk noted, now, that her black kimono and the katana she carried were both reminiscent of Battle Sister attire, though hers of course had no Avenic sigil. He wondered at the significance of that; it seemed impossible that there was none.

So they all stood, Aresk feeling chiefly conscious of his own impatience. Almost no one else present revealed any discomfort with being made to wait. The death priests were inscrutable as always, the Battle Sisters a very picture of discipline, and of course Kyomi was functionally older than time and without doubt could occupy herself with her own thoughts for far longer than this. That Arquin was the only person here with whom he felt any kinship was as amusing as it was annoying. Aresk hadn’t gotten over his antipathy toward the human, but he was beginning to appreciate the irony of it.

“Someone answers,” Raghann whispered suddenly, and there was a flicker of motion at the shrine.

Aresk snapped his attention to it, narrowing his eyes. Nothing was there, still, but for just a moment he thought he could see the outline of the doorway Kyomi had opened. By instinct, he lifted his hand ax from its loop at his belt. Foolish, of course; he was probably the least physically dangerous person here, even with the valkyries having been sent away at Raghann’s insistence. But still, if there was danger, an orc should have a weapon in hand.

A second flicker, a flat piece of space in front of the shrine rippling like a puddle touched by a leaf.

Then, without further warning, the thing burst out.

The creature was nothing created by nature; it was lopsided, one of its arms overly long and with fingers extending back upward like the bones of a bat’s wing. It supported itself on the knuckles of that hand and the mass of writhing tentacles it had instead of legs. The other arm was of more proportional length, but ended in a thick paw with seven fingers of mismatched size, each tipped by a disproportionately large, serrated claw. The top of its head was apparently missing, leaving only a flat surface above its slavering mouth—which had upthrust lower tusks, just like an orc.

Then the second mass of tentacles atop its stunted head rose up and shifted forward from having been flattened back against its skull, revealing that they were tipped in eyeballs.

Gairan made a little sound for which Aresk wouldn’t have condemned her even had he not been so fond of her. Arquin pulled a wand from the deep pocket of his coat.

“Brother!” Raghann declaimed, spreading her arms wide as though to embrace the monstrosity. “…or sister. This is a safe place. Be welcome here.”

The creature surged forward a few feet, and Aresk instinctively did likewise. It moved with a strange gait, tugging itself along on that one overlong arm while its mess of tendrils supported it, but even so it moved fast for such an ungainly creature.

All around them came the avid hiss of steel as the Battle Sisters unsheathed their swords in unison.

The monster stopped, however, its eyeballs pivoting to take them all in, its head pointing at Raghann. It opened its jaws to extend a wide, flat tongue, with which it appeared to taste the air.

“We feel your pain,” Raghann said, gazing up at the beast without fear. “We feel your anger. We offer you respite, and the hope of healing. Let go of—”

It screamed at her—or roared, it was hard to tell as it had three distinct voices making different noises simultaneously. Then it charged. Not at Raghann, this time, but to her left, at Gairan.

Aresk crossed the ground in three rapid strides, planting himself between the shaman and the monster, and roared a wordless challenge back at it.

Rather to his surprise, the thing stopped its advance, close enough it could have reached out to grab him with its longer arm. It flexed its jaws, screaming right back at him. He braced his feet and lifted his axe, leaning toward it and baring all his teeth in a bellow of pure fury.

The monster stopped, tilting its head inquisitively. Aresk couldn’t guess which eyeball to look at, so he stared at a point right above its mouth.

“Boy, get out of the way,” Raghann ordered from behind him.

Aresk ignored her apparently suicidal demand, not taking his attention off the monster. It swayed slowly from side to side, and he tracked it with his eyes. The beast bared fangs, growling at him, and he did the same right back.

Then it actually settled backward slightly, seeming to consider him in earnest.

“Move!” Raghann snapped, prodding him from behind with her staff.

“Mother Raghann,” Gairan began, “maybe he—”

“Trust your elders, both of you,” she said curtly. “I know what I’m doing.”

Aresk didn’t see how she could possibly know what she was doing, since what they were all doing had no precedent in the history of the world. Still, rather than try to fight on two fronts, he began easing to the side. Keeping his pace carefully slow but his steps firm, not showing weakness by signaling a retreat, but deliberately not making aggressive moves. He had done this dance many a time with other orcs; it was all part of getting to know a stranger in any circumstance when it was not certain who was dominant. This was how matters were first settled whenever he encountered orcs from other clans while away from Camp Khashrek on a hunt.

The monster mirrored his movements in its weird shuffling gait, circling around slowly in the other direction. He might have suspected it was going around him to get at the shaman, but it kept its focus firmly on him, right where he wanted it. The movements were all so bizarrely familiar.

“Lost one,” Raghann said earnestly once she had a clear line of sight to the creature, “we implore you to be at peace.”

Aresk didn’t risk taking his eyes off the beast, but narrowed them in disapproval. Something in this twisted abomination still thought like an orc, that much he could tell from the way it acted. Orcs did not implore each other. She was treating it like one of the human spirits or yokai that sometimes went wandering on Tsurikura and had to be coaxed back to rest. That was a big part of a shaman’s role in their society, now. But here…

“This is a place of safety,” Raghann continued in a soothing voice. “A place of rest. We are your kin, long lost but not forgotten. Please find—”

The monster abruptly rounded on her with a truly horrific scream, raising its many-clawed hand to strike the old shaman. Aresk lunged at it, drawing back his own axe to attack.

Arquin was faster and, having circled around the shaman during the confrontation, closer. He was also no longer holding a wand, somehow, but a scythe of gnarled, blackened wood, whose gleaming blade he planted right in the center of the monstrosity’s chest.

It collapsed in on itself like a rotting mushroom, its bulk crumpling, disintegrating into dust, and emitting a cloud of mist which seemed made more of light than particulate matter. It swirled away back toward the portal, though some seemed to be sucked in by the scythe.

Aresk stared fixedly until the last of it had vanished. It was for the most fleeting moment, so briefly he was half-convinced he had imagined it, but for just that instant he had been certain he’d seen the shape of an orc in the swirling vapor. Nodding to him, one hunter acknowledging another.

“What have you done?” Raghann demanded furiously, rising to her feet.

“He saved our lives, that’s what,” Gairan snapped. “That thing was not going to listen to you, elder.”

“That thing was one of our people!”

“And now they’re at peace,” Arquin said calmly, planting the butt of his scythe on the ground, “for the first time in a century. But that still wasn’t the outcome we’re looking for, here. What went wrong?”

The old shaman drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly, mastering her anger. “It was the first try. We cannot expect everything to go our way all at once, not with something like this. Well. Now we know we can reach them across the gateway. We must figure out how to calm them enough that they will listen. That lost spirit was utterly maddened with rage and grief, trapped in a twisted form it hated. It had forgotten how to be an orc.”

“Then how do we remind them?” Gairan asked.

“That is what we must figure out, isn’t it?” Raghann replied. “When in doubt, a shaman always has ways of seeking answers. We must consult the spirits for advice. Familiar spirits, known to us already. They do not often provide answers outright, but they will point us in the right direction to begin asking.” While Gairan nodded agreement, the older shaman turned a baleful look on Aresk, followed by a pointing finger. “And you will refrain from interfering next time, young man.”

“The creature you summoned was going to kill you, Mother Raghann,” he retorted. “I stopped it. You’re welcome. Listen, the way you were going about trying to calm it—”

“Ahp!” She held up a hand, turning her face away from him in one of those exceedingly rude gestures for which she was known that would get anyone but the eldest of his clan summarily punched in the eye. “I do you the courtesy of not telling you how to trap and skin beasts. The difference between us is that I know my limitations and respect them, boy. Don’t lecture me about calming agitated spirits!”

“That thing was well beyond agitated,” he insisted, “and calming it was exactly the wrong thing to do!”

“Now, you listen to me,” Raghann began in a dangerous tone.

“Excuse me?” Arquin interrupted, frowning. “I don’t know that I agree with Aresk, either, but Kyomi-sama herself chose him for this task. I’m pretty sure that summarily brushing him off is not called for.”

“That’s right,” Gairan agreed, nodding in approval at Aresk.

Once again, Raghann’s shoulders lifted with a slow inhalation, and once again she repressed whatever she’d been about to erupt with. The contrast between her and Arkhosh had never been more striking, even with one of them miles away.

“First, we seek wisdom,” she grunted at last, turning her back on Aresk and kneeling again in her ritual diagram. “Perhaps the spirits’ advice will shed some light on the young hunter’s. Come, Gairan, I will need your focus.”

Aresk snorted, but quietly, and fortunately neither shaman reacted to him. He retreated a few steps to the edge of the nearest row of graves, turning a thoughtful stare upon the inconspicuous spot where that terrible gate lay invisible.

Arquin circled around the shaman back the other way, approaching him. At some point while Aresk’s eyes were off him he’d made that scythe disappear. All this magic was enough to give a man a headache…

“What do you think?” the human asked very quietly, coming to stand next to Aresk.

He hesitated before answering, gathering his thoughts and turning a pensive stare on Gairan and Raghann.

“I don’t blindly do whatever my father says, you know.” he murmured at last. “It’s not just love that makes me favor him and his views over Mother Raghann’s. I remember growing up in a clan where they were both authority figures. I remember her always trying to…calm me down. Lecturing about the hot blood of youth, telling me to take long walks or forcing me into lessons on meditating, of all the boring claptrap.”

“Mm,” Arquin grunted. “The condescension of smart old people is universal across cultures, I guess.”

Aresk nodded. “My father taught me how to cope like an orc. He gave me work to do, to tire me out. Or deliberately set me up to brawl with other young people till we worked it out of our systems. He’d even fight me himself when he found it necessary.”

Arquin was giving him a strange look, as if to say that clearly not everything was universal across cultures. Aresk was familiar enough with the Sifanese not to need that explained.

“Raghann is right about one thing,” he said softly. “If that monster is what’s left in Athan’Khar now, they have forgotten how to be orcs. She was wrong about what to do, though. You don’t calm that kind of anger. Especially not when it’s justified. That just makes it worse.”

“I’m pretty sure you don’t get in punching matches with it, either,” Arquin said.

“Only the young among us fight over every little thing,” Aresk mused, his eyes distant. “We’re not savages, Arquin, nor are we monsters. We feel and express things more acutely than your kind, but we do have a society, which wouldn’t function if everyone was always lashing out. We have our ways. Ways to express, to cope, to get along. Ways that are not what she was trying to do with that beast. Raghann has the same problem. She’s forgotten how to be an orc. She’s the heir of a hundred years of Sifanese influence. The spirits of Athan’Khar are the remains of a hundred years of rage. Her ways will never make them listen.”

Arquin turned a speculative look on Raghann. Both shaman had their backs to them and were chanting over a burning pile of something that smelled acridly herbal.

“There is absolutely no way,” the human said thoughtfully, “anything useful would result from trying to explain that to her.”

“The condescension of smart old people,” Aresk agreed, then took a deep breath. “Arquin. Man to man, if I was to do something that seemed crazy, maybe even suicidal, could I count on you not to interfere?”

The human gave him a sidelong look, his expression unreadable. “That depends on what crazy thing we’re talking about, and more importantly, why you’re doing it.”

Aresk chanced a glance at Kyomi, and found her watching him with a faint little smile. Catching his eye, she winked.

“I feel I know what to do,” he said softly. “And nobody’s going to like it. Especially not me.”

“That’s it? You feel?”

“This is about feelings. Every part of it. It’s about anger, and hate, and grief, and hope. How to deal with them. Raghann can’t do it.”

“But you can.” Aresk couldn’t fault him for the skepticism in his voice.

“I don’t know, Arquin. But I know what to try.”

He sighed. “Gairan’s going to kick my ass if you get yourself killed.”

“Yes, she will,” Aresk said, grinning a grin that was at least as much repressed terror as amusement. He had to deny the fear welling up or it would paralyze him. “Listen, it’s like you showed me last night. Sometimes you can’t fight head on. But you have to be willing to stand and let your enemy come to grips before you can…push them aside.”

“I’m gonna regret this, I know it,” Arquin muttered. “Look, whatever madness you’re thinking of, do it as carefully as you can. Take it slow and think it over.”

Aresk clapped him on the shoulder, almost hard enough to knock him over. “Not a chance.”

Then he burst into a sprint, even though it was sure to draw the attention of the shaman and risk them stopping him somehow. There was no way around it; if he tried to approach this slowly, he would never be able to see it through.

Sure enough, they noticed.

“Aresk!” Gairan shouted in horror, and then he plunged through the gate.


Suddenly it was dark, and it took Aresk an embarrassing few moments to realize that that was because he’d just traveled a significant distance around the planet, and not due to any magic. It was a forgivable mistake, though, as everything else within his view bore the taint of magic in the worst possible way.

The darkness was not absolute; that might have been preferable. Athan’Khar’s very atmosphere seemed to have a sulfurous glow, hanging over the horizon and casting shifting patterns of inexplicable shadow all around. Aresk’s immediate environment was clearly a shrine—an orcish shrine, not the Sifanese Vidian holy ground he’d just left. Behind him stood a gateway, a physical one in which Kyomi had clearly positioned her magic portal. Massive stone pillars towered over twenty feet, with another laid atop them, all square-carved and deeply engraved with intricate knotwork. In fact, when he looked closer, the lines seemed to be filled with a dark glassy material like obsidian.

Boundaries and gateways were important in the Kharsa people’s traditional shamanism, setting aside areas like the ceremonial grounds back in Camp Khashrek where specific codes of behavior applied. A free-standing ceremonial gate not part of a boundary was used for rituals of transition—namings, rites of adulthood, marriages, funerals, the elevation of shaman, and so on. This one had clearly served a sizable community, to judge by the baskets of offerings laid around its base. After a hundred years they were all rotted to barely-identifiable scraps. It was unsettling that the ancient grains, hides, trinkets and weapons had all rotted and dried up to virtually residue, but nothing had been tampered with by scavengers. All of it lay shriveled up exactly where it had been placed.

At least the gate and its grounds were clear. It was positioned in a hollow surrounded by forested hills, with a road leading out of the space between two hills just in front of him. The trees, though… They were twisted. Their shapes rose up from the ground like grasping fingers, coiled around themselves with leafless branches clutching at each other, or reaching skyward. In fact, he realized with horror as his eyed adjusted to the low light, it wasn’t his mind playing tricks: those branches ended in the actual shapes of hands. Long and skeletal, but unmistakable.

There was a patch of nearly-dead yellowish grass around the ancient gateway, but beyond that, the ground cover looked more like patches of mold whose color he couldn’t make out in the dimness, interspersed with spiky little bushes that bristled with thorns, and stands of mushrooms taller than his waist, with fat round caps too big for their scrawny stalks, causing them to list drunkenly in all directions.

Aresk had the grace of just a few moments to slowly turn around, getting his bearings and taking in the sights, such as they were. Then it started.

At first he thought it was the wind, but the sound kept rising, and became impossible to misinterpret: it was moaning. It came from the woods all around, undulating gently and shifting this way and that. No sooner had he begun to make sense of the noise than a glow followed it, an eerie pale illumination which seemed out of the trees at irregular intervals, casting a foggy light across the clearing.

And, incidentally, revealing that the spiky bushes were covered with tiny skulls. Aresk couldn’t tell if they grew that way or were impaled on the spines.

The gate was right there, behind him. He could step back through. Gairan and Raghann would berate him to no end for his stupidity, and worse, he would look like a coward… But he would be alive and not turned into another undead horror.

No.

Aresk, son of Arkhosh of the High Wind clan, was an orc. He would retreat when it was wise, but not when pushed by fear. Not without at least trying what he had come here to do.

He raised his ax high, threw back his head, and roared a long, ululating challenge at the nightmares all around him.

Screams, howls, and unearthly cacophony of all sorts immediately answered him, accompanied by movement among the lights in the trees. And then they came forth.

After the first glance he stopped trying to make sense of the misshapen limbs, tentacles, impossible claws and hideously warped biology of the beasts that emerged from the forest. None of them belonged in this world, that much was plain. By and large they were pale like cave salamanders, as if even the sun did not bother to touch Athan’Khar anymore.

At least they didn’t keep him waiting.

The shapes approached in no hurry, shuffling and loping with a variety of lopsided gaits, closing in from all sides on the patch of clear space around the gateway.

Aresk brandished his ax and bellowed a challenge at them.

From every direction, howling answered him. He was surrounded utterly by death and its uglier cousins, fixed on adding him to their ranks. The terror of it alone was enough to crush the spirit.

He pushed aside terror, embracing rage.

And then the whispers began.

They were beyond the edge of hearing, not intelligible, but more the sense of voices in his ears. Even without discerning words, he felt the message. Senseless fury, unrelenting agony, grief and hatred. Entreaties—demands—that he join them. Intentions to make him do so. The monsters came, one step and slither and stumble at a time, their voices worming deep into his mind, voices of their twisted spirits rather than their twisted bodies.

In those voices, he found what he needed. Shaman had come here and been swept up by these abominations, and though Aresk did not know exactly what they had tried, he suspected the shape of it from having watched Raghann. That would never work. This rage could not be calmed. It could not be resisted.

So, instead of resisting, he opened himself to it. Aresk drank in their pain and fury, feeling the stab of its agony in his own heart. Then, he added to it, calling up every memory of his father’s speeches about their people’s lost past, about the importance of the old ways. About their eternal hatred of the Tiraan.

The howling and snarling rose, all around and within him. Aresk did not deny them their rage; he joined them in it.

Raising his face to the yellowish sky, he roared again, a long and wild exhalation of pure ferocity. The fury pounding in him was more than his mere body could expel, but he tried anyway. He wrapped the bottomless well of rage around himself like a river in which he swam, drew it through his own spirit, and poured it out with his voice, howling and roaring until his throat ached.

And they joined him in turn. The creatures stopped advancing, halting where they were, and raised their voices higher.

Aresk was no longer afraid of them. He was one with them. A living part of the anguish and anger that animated this land and its denizens.

They screamed at the sky, pouring forth their fury at what they had lost. At the pain that wracked them still. Their helplessness, their betrayal.

Then he took it a step further, adding the anger and humiliation of their living cousins in Sifan. Every memory he could conjure—not the recollections of events, but the emotions of it. The reality of living at the indulgence of a greater nation, in the shadow of their own destruction. The helpless humiliation that was the existence of the last of the Kharsa.

The roaring around him rose further. It spread outward, now. The noise was already more than his mere ears could make sense of, but Aresk was linked now to this land and these voices in a way he didn’t quite understand, and he could feel them rippling across all of Athan’Khar, a million broken horrors screaming in unison. They would hear this in Viridill and N’Jendo.

He had dropped his ax, raising his arms to the heavens and howling at them. And as Aresk taught these lost ancestors the feelings of their people now, the temper of their screaming changed. Pain rose up through the anger, grief and loss, until it fully covered their fury.

They screamed at the night. Sobbed and wailed, expelling the agony of history’s greatest atrocity, and the century of pain which had followed. It poured out without cease, an entire shattered nation crying as one voice.

He couldn’t have said how long it went on. At one point, he fell to his knees. At another, he became conscious of tears gushing down his face. Aresk topped forward, clawing at the earth of Athan’Khar, pounding his fists against it in helplessness.

And slowly, eventually, it came to a stop. First with him, as his voice eventually gave out from sheer physical strain. And then, spreading outward, quiet rippled from that one forgotten gateway shrine to the farthest reaches of the lost country.

The pain was not gone. That pain would never be gone. That anger could not be washed away. It was there…but it had been given the chance to express itself, and somehow, Aresk and his undead nation had exhausted themselves until they couldn’t scream any more, not even within.

There was quiet. All the agony and fury lay there, not lost, but dormant for the moment. For a while, he and they simply…were. Together.

And Aresk found other memories.

The stories told of Athan’Khar, of its great heroes and wild rituals. Of the land—a good, rich land, rugged and dangerous but vibrantly alive. Its ridges and hills carpeted with pines, brushed by cold winds and harsh winters. The elk and goats and wolves and beavers and cougars and all the living things among whom the Kharsa lived, taking what they needed with appreciation and respect, accepting it with honor when nature took from them in turn.

Towering, craggy mountains, the southernmost arm of the Wyrnrange extending down from the human lands almost to the tundra in the deep south. Glaciers tracking their infinitesimal progress across the southern reaches. Mighty waterfalls and gushing rivers, fed by countless living streams. The rocky cliffs of the western coast and the smoother shores of the east, where the Cold Spray clan had fished and traded with visitors from the world over.

The auroras dancing in the night sky, a sight Aresk had never seen and could scarcely imagine. Stories of the lights last glimpsed generations ago could not possibly capture their wonder or beauty. But at the thought of them, he was shown. All around him were spirits who had seen those lights, and their clarity exploded into his mind, memories adding to his own. They were more glorious than he could have imagined.

He wept anew for the lost beauty of his land, kneeling and pressing his forehead into the dirt. Soft keening rose around him, but it was only from a few points, now, and far gentler in tone.

Athan’Khar, their beautiful country. It was not forgotten.

Aresk had the strangest sensation for just a moment, as if the world moved under him. As though he stood not upon solid ground, but on the back of some great turtle which had just taken a ponderous step.

And before he could process that, another memory came to him. A memory of humans.

He saw women of every color in which they came, dark Westerners, pale Stalweiss, tawny Tiraan, many others, the Sisters of Viridill. And in those memories of the horror that came with the Enchanter’s Bane, they were joined.

He heard cries of shock and grief in thin human voices, dainty little faces with expressions twisted with rage. Hands extended with compassion.

Hands taking up weapons.

The Sisterhood turning around in the middle of war, closing ranks with their enemies and turning the force of their fury upon the Imperial Army. The broken Kharsa armies and Silver Legionnaires slamming into the Tiraan and sweeping them aside, till not a one darkened Viridill’s borders.

Aresk understood, and reciprocated.

He called up images of the Sifanese, the polite and distant people so different from the rough and vibrant orcs. The boisterous and cheerful Punaji who came to trade with them, both goods and stories, and who never looked down on orcs, or even askance at them. The creepy Vidian priests and serene Battle Sisters who joined them from time to time on Tsurikura. The various Sifanese outcasts who came to spend time among the Kharsa, learning their ways and teaching them what they knew in turn.

Gabriel Arquin, the strangely orc-like young man, with his valkyries and his dark two-faced god, determined not to leave the crimes of the past where they lay.

Humanity in all its complexity, and the truth that there were friends out there in the world. Souls who would stand shoulder to shoulder with the orcs against true evil. Who did not judge or reject, even when the great powers among them demanded that they should.

Not to try to calm away the rage like Raghann wanted, but to fight together.

Slowly, they slunk away. The hivemind of broken spirits was not a thing which could make decisions, and certainly not change its ways; Aresk had not healed anything. But he had added to it. There was something new coursing through the veins of Athan’Khar’s warped collective psyche now: hope.

Monsters retreated back through the trees, leaving him untouched upon the ground before the shrine. Gradually, the awareness of their thought, their inner voices, ebbed away as well.

Behind them they left exhaustion like nothing Aresk had ever felt. He slumped over onto his side, lacking even the energy to support himself.

And there, lying stretched out upon the ground as if to embrace it, he felt it again. That great, subtle shifting. Something colossal beneath the tortured spirit of the land which began to stir at his touch.

You understand.

The words were Kharsa, whispering through his mind like the voices of the damned, but much clearer. The intelligence behind them strained and wounded, but not so badly distorted.

You are an orc. You know how we must heal. Not through rest, but through battle.

Aresk drew in a breath, rasping around his painfully strained vocal cords. “Who are you?”

Anything that lives may die, son of the Kharsa. But for gods, even death is a different thing.

“Khar,” he whispered into the very dirt, too wrung out even to feel as awed as this situation called for.

Light rose around him—warm and gentle light. Aresk found the energy to push himself up to his hands and knees, weakly raising his head to behold the gate.

The lines of Kharsa knotwork inscribed on the shrine were no longer dormant black glass, but glowing softly with pale golden light. The touch of divine magic, no longer tainted by the Enchanter’s Bane, had returned to Athan’Khar. At least to this one tiny spot.

And where it could touch once, it could spread.

Our people have remembered their ways as best they can, I see it in your mind. We have still our shaman. But there have been no priests of Khar. There can be no priests of a dead god.

Unless the god of death extends a hand to help.

“What must I do?” he asked hoarsely.

The ways which have been lost must be found again. New ways must be walked in a new world. It begins with you: the first to understand how the lost souls of the Kharsa can be spoken with. Teach others. Continue to meet with them. Take from them the pain they offer. Give to them the healing you must gather into yourself. Be one with them—as orcs. Let them remember who they are, Deathspeaker.

You must find peace, in order to give peace.

We must have peace, in order to fight the battles that will come.

Aresk gathered his strength, rising unsteadily to his feet. Around him, bathed in the divine glow of the shrine, the green grass had rejuvenated itself in just minutes, forming a lush carpet of life. At the very edges of the glow, spikes and skulls began to melt from a few bushes like frost under the sun. Giant mushrooms were slowly shrinking, revealing hints of the mundane toadstools nature had meant for them to be.

“I will,” he vowed, pounding a fist into his heart. “I…do not know the way. But I will find it. We will find it.”

Above him, the moon broke through the haze, and the yellowish cast of the light gently faded. In that one place, there was the first touch of healing.


Gairan hugged him first. Then she punched him. Aresk let her do it three times before catching her fist.

“I truly did not think we would ever see you again, boy,” Raghann said unsteadily, approaching. He was surprised to see her face hollowed and tear-streaked; it was a reminder that for all his points of disagreement with the old shaman, she cared for him as she did for any of their clan.

“God damn I’m glad you’re back,” Arquin added fervently. “And…what’s all this, then?”

He gestured, and Aresk straightened his back, burying self-consciousness beneath pride, as was the way of the Kharsa. He couldn’t quite explain the origin of his clothes; he’d just been wearing them when he turned to step back through the gate. Instead of his simple hunter’s garb, he was dressed in a coarse robe draped with a mantle of raven feathers, a crown of horns and antlers lying atop his head. Regalia of a kind the orcs had not seen in a century: that of their long-broken priesthood.

Wrapping an arm around Gairan’s shoulders as she pressed herself into his side, Aresk closed his eyes, concentrating. He found it within, the soft glow accompanied by the sluggish, almost-lost sense of a dead god just beginning to remember life. And the sharp pain of the countless shattered spirits of their homeland, inextricably bound with the power.

But it came, nonetheless, and a glow rose around him, the pale golden-white aura of divine magic.

Raghann’s gasp of shock was deeply gratifying. Kyomi’s knowing chuckle less so, but he knew better than to give the kitsune a reaction.

“Well, blow me down,” Arquin breathed. “You found a way.”

“Not yet.” Aresk shook his head, and then smiled. “But we’ve found a way to begin.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

Bonus #31: Deathspeaker, part 3

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

Aresk had never hesitated in a fight in his life, but he had also never felt so out of control of himself. He didn’t remember deciding to hit Arquin; he specifically recalled deciding not to. So he halted, uncertainly, with his fist still extended and the human staggering away, barely keeping on his feet after that first punch.

“Damn, you guys really do hit hard,” Arquin commented, catching his balance and straightening up. He was neither bruised nor bleeding. “Well, can’t say I didn’t ask for it. How well can you do without sucker-punching someone?”

That conveniently resolved Aresk’s personal dilemma. With a wordless roar, he charged forward, completely in agreement with himself now on the matter of pummeling Gabriel Arquin.

Amazingly, the human just stood there and watched him come. Were they slow as well as frail? Aresk swung a wild haymaker and Arquin soaked it up right on the ear, staggering sideways. He only just avoided falling, but Aresk kept after him, launching punches at his head and chest.

Even through the fog of his fury, he quickly realized that something was wrong, here. The human was just standing there; he only exerted himself to stay upright while Aresk knocked him around the clearing. He didn’t fight back, or dodge, or even block. After a few frenetic seconds in which he landed enough uncontested hits to have put even another orc on his back in the dust, Aresk paused, fists still upraised, squinting at Arquin in the firelight.

He still looked…fine. The man didn’t have a mark on him, not so much as a drop of blood.

“Good,” Arquin said briskly during Aresk’s hesitation, straightening his coat. “Good power, decent speed. I can see you don’t get in a lot of serious fights, though.”

“Gabriel,” Gairan warned, but the human kept on talking.

“Everything’s in your upper body, and that won’t do if somebody fights you back,” Arquin said. “Balance is the first and most important thing in a fight, and yours is terrible. Look, start with a stance. You want your feet shoulder-width apart, with your knees slightly flexed, and put your weight—”

The sheer condescension of it was enough to drive Aresk almost senseless with fury. His bellow of rage split the evening and he lunged, drawing back his fist for a blow that would have cracked a tree.

He barely saw what happened, but somehow Arquin shifted just a hair out of the way, caught his arm, and spun them both around, using Aresk’s own momentum to hurl him bodily across the clearing. The came up against the trunk of an oak so hard it shook and deposited a shower of acorns on them all.

“What?” he choked, stumbling back and whirling around, fists up to block. The human hadn’t pressed his advantage, though; he was still just standing there.

“Aw, that’s nothing,” Arquin said modestly. “You should meet my friend Toby, he’d have you on your knees with your arms in a knot by now.”

Baring the full extent of his tusks, Aresk surged toward him again, fist upraised.

Then he stopped. Without lowering his arm, he stared at the inexplicably unruffled human.

“Now that,” Gabriel said, pointing at him, “is your first tactically correct decision.”

Even realizing how easily he was being baited, Aresk couldn’t help himself. He at least changed his approach this time, shifting his motion to deliver a powerful uppercut which Arquin didn’t even try to avoid. The orc’s fist hit him right under the chin, lifting him a full yard off the ground and finally sending him to the dirt on his back.

The next moment, he snapped both his feet around Aresk’s right leg in some kind of lock; pushing on his ankle with one foot and pulling his knee with the other, he forced the leg to buckle and sent Aresk staggering down to a kneeling position.

While he was still reeling for balance, Arquin rolled deftly back to his feet. Aresk shot upright the instant he physically could.

The two of them stared at each other in the firelight, neither moving.

“What are you doing?” Aresk demanded harshly.

“Making a point,” Arquin said in total calm.

“How are you doing this?” he roared.

“Haven’t you ever seen the Sifanese fight?” Arquin asked with a good-natured little smile. “This is nothing. When I passed through Kiyosan I asked a sailor to show me some of the martial arts he was bragging about and my ass was in the harbor before I realized he’d touched me. And that was just some guy, not a master or anything.”

“We don’t fight the Sifanese,” Raghann commented, “but both karate and kendo are known to us…just not to Aresk, here. His father would never stand for him studying human arts. I think that is not the point he was curious about, though.”

“Why aren’t you hurt?” Aresk demanded.

“He’s a demonblood.” Gairan was staring up at him with a faint frown; neither she nor Mother Raghann had moved from their seats during the fight. “Part hethelax. You would need magic to make him bleed, Aresk.”

Aresk could only gape at her for a moment. And then at Arquin.

“You—that—how long were—”

“It isn’t news,” Gairan said, frowning more deeply. “He told us this earlier today. I thought it was strange you didn’t respond, but I thought you must have heard. It’s not the kind of revelation someone just…glosses over.”

“So this is how you fight?” Aresk snarled at Arquin. “With magic and trickery?”

“Blood isn’t something you can just turn off,” the human pointed out. “Unless you know something I don’t. In which case, sure, show me how to stop being invulnerable, then you stop being twice my size, strength, and sturdiness, and we can try a rematch. That sounds fair, right?”

Aresk took a step closer to him. “And now you’re making fun of me?”

“Like I said, I’m making a point,” Arquin replied, still infuriatingly calm. “This is why peace matters. The Enchanter’s Bane is widely considered the worst weapon ever created and the Empire has long since destroyed the methods, records, and anybody who knew how to build one, but weapons have still advanced. If we’re to restore Athan’Khar and the Kharsa people to it, they can’t live as they did before. Constant war with your neighbors is not an option, they would crush you. The way you live now, with the Sifanese, is a much better path. Why would you ever want to go back?”

“Why? Because battle makes us strong!” Aresk raged, clenching his fists at his sides.

“Your people haven’t fought a battle in a hundred years. Does that make you weak?”

“You didn’t even land one hit on me!”

“Yes, that’s correct,” Arquin said simply. “I didn’t. And do you feel like you’ve won, here?”

Aresk physically vibrated with the repressed urge to punch him again. He repressed it because the effort would have been completely wasted. And the urge kept rising, because that was exactly the human’s—half-human’s—point. Somehow, he had worked himself into a corner where he did not understand what kind of fight he was in and everything he might do meant he would lose.

Finally, taking the only route he saw left, Aresk turned and stalked off into the darkening forest.


Full dark had long descended by the time she found him.

Aresk had seated himself on the horizontal remains of what had once been a massive tree, staring into the night and listening to the constant noise of crickets and owls. He heard her coming, of course; she made no attempt to disguise her approach. Still, he just sat, staring at nothing, while she circled around the log and finally took a seat alongside him upon it.

For a while, they were simply there. She waited for him.

“Is the world going to be like that, then?” Aresk said suddenly, still not looking at her. “That was… There was nothing I could do to him. I felt helpless. I have not felt helpless since my mother died.”

“The world was already like that, Aresk,” Gairan replied quietly. “We’ve been in no position to fight anyone since we settled here. The Sifanese would surely crush us if we gave them a reason.”

“But they don’t,” he whispered. “Because…they have no reason.”

She said nothing.

“And that’s it, then,” he finally breathed. “The last, true death of who we were. My father and those who agree with him are always talking about reclaiming our place, restoring the old ways… But even if the Deathspeaker’s plan works and we can re-settle our true home, there’s no going back, is there? We can’t test ourselves against the humans. Our history is truly dead.”

“Death begets life,” she said. “We can’t be what we used to be, but that doesn’t make us nothing.”

“And that’s what I’ve been sitting here, thinking about. What are we? Here, we’re…caretakers, guests. Tolerated as long as we are inoffensive and useful, but not wanted. It’s not our place, we don’t belong, and the Sifanese never let us forget it. In Athan’Khar we were strong, feared… But we can’t become that again. We can’t stay, and can’t return. What are we to become, Gairan?”

“I don’t know, Aresk.” She shifted closer to him and reached up to put an arm around his shoulders. “But I know that we can become something. My clan has people like your father and Mother Raghann, too, people who are obsessed with either restoring the old ways or resigning ourselves to our place here. Always one or the other, those are the two positions. The more age and wisdom someone has, I think, the less they can see past their own point of view. But you’re here, thinking about what we should do. That’s what will save us—finding a new path. I’ve never respected a man more.”

Slowly, he leaned against her, and she pressed her weight into him in reply.

“So the Jendi still hate us,” he murmured. “I wonder what makes the difference. He didn’t say the Viridi do…”

“Did your father ever tell you how we worked with the Sisterhood?”

“He said the Kharsa and the Avenists tested themselves against each other, and made each other stronger.”

“There are other stories, that are less widely known now,” she said. “The traditionalists in my clan don’t like to hear them. But there were Kharsa heroes all through the Age of Adventures. Whenever a great demon lord or warlock or necromancer rose, headhunters were called and sent to destroy them alongside Chosen of Avei and Omnu and Salyrene. In the Hellwars, in plagues of undeath, in every great disaster, Athan’Khar sent armies. Our people raged against evil and cut it down wherever it rose. All that which hunted humanity feared us. The Avenists appeciated our strength, and appreciated the wars that honed us. They are a people of purpose. But the Jendi…they just wanted to live in their own land.”

Gairan hesitated, then gave him a gentle shake.

“We were strong with the humans as much as against them, Aresk. We’ve gained strength from the Sifanese, whether they like it or not. We can’t be as we were and we can’t go on as we are, but we can still be strong. We are a strong people, and that won’t change. It’s just a matter of finding a new way to be strong, in this new world. The Deathspeaker presents an opportunity, but I think the most important thing he said was about keeping Tiraas from taking over the recovery. We have to find our own way, and not let it be found for us.”

“You’re right.” Aresk wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close. “You are right. I just…I wish I knew how.”

“Keep thinking, Aresk. Keep watching, and you’ll find it. I believe that about you.”

If she believed it, he would have to make it so. And that was all there was to it.


At least the next day’s walk was quieter.

Neither Arquin nor Raghann said anything about the previous night’s events. The old shaman managed to convey without a word that she knew and understood everything about everyone’s business, which was nothing new; Aresk was beginning to wonder whether she actually had any such insight or had just perfected the art of seeming like it over the years. The human, for his part, was as polite and friendly as ever, when spoken to. He mostly left them alone, however.

This time, Gairan walked alongside Aresk the whole time, to his delight. What had passed between them last night had not explicitly settled anything, but it had clearly made a great difference in a way he didn’t quite understand yet. The two of them didn’t talk much, leaving the group to its quiet. For now, it was good enough.

Their destination was reached shortly before noon. Aresk, being of course very familiar with the area surrounding Camp Khashrek, had discerned where they were going by midday yesterday: the disused Vidian shrine sat atop the center of a slightly curved ridge, which had been carved into terraces entirely taken up now by a cemetery. A single stretch of stone stairs led straight to the shrine itself from the base, with paths branching off it at intervals leading among the quiet graves. He himself had avoided this place, though his hunts had repeatedly brought him near it; the maintenance of Tsurikura’s protected sites was the work of the clans’ shaman, and the Vidian priests who periodically traveled to the island to conduct their rituals.

The area around the base of the cemetery hill was clear of trees, and the small party emerged from the forest to find it already occupied. Preparations had clearly been made in advance, to judge by the warriors taking up obvious guard positions around the small meadow. These were not Queen’s samurai in armor, but Battle Sisters, women whose black robes bore Avei’s eagle sigil in golden embroidery. All their attention shifted to the three orcs and their human companion was the group stepped out of the treeline, but none moved to intercept them. Clearly, they were expected.

Each of the orcs nodded respectfully to the Battle Sister they passed closest to, a younger woman with particularly fine features. Arquin gave her a broad smile and offered a greeting.

“Konnichiwa!”

Her eyes slid right past him, and her hand found its way to the handle of her katana. He coughed and hurried past, ducking his head. Behind him, Raghann grinned in open amusement.

“Kon,” Aresk said in a low voice, veering over to walk beside Arquin as they approached the stairs to the shrine.

The human looked at him sidelong. “Pardon?”

“It’s kon-nichiwa.”

“…that’s what I said.”

“You said ‘can.’ Also ‘nitch,’ when the vowel you wanted there was more of an ee. And you heavily emphasized one of the syllables, which Sifanese doesn’t. The language has fewer sounds than Kharsa. Or Tanglish, I understand. It also has lots of homonyms; half their humor is puns. So it’s very important to pronounce correctly, otherwise you can find yourself making an off-color joke you didn’t intend.”

“Oh, gods,” Arquin muttered. “What did I say to her?”

Aresk grunted. “You said ‘hello’ in the manner of a mush-mouthed idiot foreigner. Good try, but maybe you’d better keep letting your magic sword translate.”

Arquin actually grinned in open amusement; he looked like he might have laughed, had their mission and surroundings been less solemn. At moments like this, Aresk couldn’t help feeling that Gabriel Arquin would be an okay guy if he didn’t embody everything wrong with the world.

At the top of the stone stairs they passed beneath one of the towering, squared arches the Sifanese liked to use in ceremonial places. Apparently they had some spiritual significance, which Aresk had never learned. After last night’s conversation, he was starting to wonder how badly his father’s opinions had tainted his understanding of the world. The shrine itself was not large, a low building with an open front and a traditional sloped roof, surrounded by quiet gardens within the shade of the massive trees which surmounted the cemetery.

Two Vidian priests stood before the shrine itself, and bowed deeply to them. Aresk had always deliberately avoided these; swathed in black robes with white ceramic masks, they were inscrutable, silent, and altogether…

“Creepy,” Arquin muttered.

Aresk looked at him in surprise. “Aren’t these priests of your religion?”

“The cults in Sifan are different than what I’m used to. Believe me, those samurai down there don’t much resemble Silver Legionnaires. These guys…more of the same.”

“Hm.”

“And so you have come!”

Once again, Kyomi appeared standing on top of something, this time the front edge of the shrine’s roof. That seemed rather disrespectful to Aresk, but in a country where her kind were known as goddesses he supposed she got to decide exactly how much honor was to be shown to whom and what.

The instant she spoke, both Vidian priests spun toward her and folded themselves to the ground, pressing their masks against the grass with their hands forming triangles in front of their foreheads. The kitsune had never demanded such obesiance from the Kharsa, but in the presence of it Aresk made his own bow deeper than he usually did—and noticed that the others did likewise, including Raghann. Arquin also bowed, shifting his feet and grasping the scabbard of his enchanted sword, generally looking uncomfortable. Apparently he wasn’t accustomed to the gesture.

Kyomi stepped off the roof into thin air, and drifted down to the stone path as lightly as an autumn leaf. She offered no acknowledgment to the two prostrate priests, simply nodding to the group. “Shaman. Hunter. Gabriel. And of course, Vestrel and Evaine!”

Her green eyes shifted to look past them at that, and Aresk risked a glance over his shoulder—then had to steel himself against jolting in surprise. Two ghost-like figures stood on the path behind them, just inside the arch, little more than black blurs like shadows lifted off the ground. So indistinct were they that it took him a moment of study to realize their odd shapes were due to each having black wings. Most unsettlingly, each carried a scythe, which was incongruously vivid enough in appearance to look tangible.

“In this land,” Kyomi stated, wearing a vague little smile, “among my people, this would ordinarily be an occasion of great ceremony. But we are here on behalf of the orcs, a people noted for straightforward practicality. And so, let us be about this as swiftly as we may. Sisters, the gate is open. Please go ahead, and scout the path before us.”

Gate? Aresk could see nothing that resembled a gate. Before he could wonder in earnest, the two indistinct figures of the valkyries swept past the group—and, to their immense discomfiture, partly through them, black wings slicing through flesh without touching. It was harmless but quite disturbing.

“Sorry about that,” Arquin said quietly. “They haven’t touched anybody in thousands of years; most people can never even see them. They get pretty casual about personal space.”

None of the orcs replied, being fully occupied by watching the shadowy valkyries vanish. The moment they reached the open front of the shrine, before touching the altar which stood just past the shade of its roof, they simply winked out of existence.

“So…that is the gate?” Gairan inquired, quietly but aloud. “Just…there? Out in the open?”

“Anyone fooling around a sacred site deserves whatever they stumble into,” Kyomi said indifferently. “We will not be disturbed, thanks to the Sisters. If our great experiment comes to nothing, I will obviously not leave the gate open, and if it succeeds, there will be a permanent presence of guards here. Worry not, young shaman.”

“Of course, Ancient One,” Gairan murmured, bowing again. “I did not mean to question.”

“You’ve given no offense,” Kyomi replied with a mysterious little smile. “You also, Gabriel, calm yourself. I’m pleased to see that you care for them so, but Athan’Khar is no more dangerous to them than anywhere else, so long as they do not approach Kharsor itself—which they won’t. Nothing in the region around the gate can reach across the dimensional divide to touch them.”

“I see,” he said thoughtfully. “Where is the other end of the gate, exactly?”

All three orcs shifted to stare at him. One did not question a kitsune, especially in that tone.

Kyomi, though, smiled again, with a bit more emotion. “I see why Kaisa likes you so much.”

His jaw dropped. “Wait, she what?”

“Unless you have performed a very detailed study of geography since we last spoke, the exact location will be meaningless to you. I chose a site which was sacred to the Kharsa and thus relatively unscathed by the mad spirits which still lived there, but held no inherent magic to be twisted by Magnan’s atrocity. Vestrel and Evaine will investigate the conditions on the other side, and then…we shall see what we shall see.”

“Ancient One,” Raghann said with a diffidence Aresk wouldn’t have thought her capable of, “we are deeply grateful to you for undertaking this labor on behalf of our people. As always, we are your servants.”

Kyomi’s eyes flicked to Aresk, and as he dropped his gaze he had to wonder whether such a creature could tell how he felt about having his and his entire race’s service so blithely promised that way.

“Have you figured it out, yet, Raghann?” the kitsune asked pleasantly.

“Figured…what out, Kyomi-sama?”

“Whether all this is a step in a larger plan,” Kyomi explained, amusement heavily tingeing her voice, “or simply a joke?”

The sound of soft wind through the branches above almost covered the intake of breath from all three orcs. Though not from her ears, of course.

“Okay, you cut that out,” Arquin ordered, and Gairan forgot herself so far as to whip around to stare at him in horror. One of the kneeling priests physically twitched. Arquin was scowling at Kyomi, and pointed an accusing finger. “You’re a creature older than civilization with the power to level mountains. Tormenting old ladies is beneath you.”

Aresk was very certain, for a moment, that they were all about to die.

“A fair criticism,” Kyomi said, still smiling, and actually bowed to the human.

Gairan looked as if the entire earth had been yanked out from under her. Aresk could relate.

Two dark blurs zoomed out of the invisible gate in swift succession, and he was more pleased than he could possibly have imagined to see eerie avatars of death.

“Ah,” Kyomi said, turning to face them with her sharp ears perking up. As far as Aresk could tell, she and the valkyries just stood there, staring at each other. He edged toward Arquin, leaning over to mutter out the side of his mouth.

“Are they going to speak?”

“They are speaking,” he replied just as quietly. “I’m afraid that’s as visible as they get, and that’s because it’s Vidian holy ground with a giant dimensional rift in it at the moment. But they’re describing the area around the other side of the gate, which they say is…” He paused, tilting his head. “…quiet? Relatively speaking.”

“Quiet enough, for our purposes,” Kyomi agreed, looking over her shoulder at them with a knowing little smile which she pulled off even better than Raghann, unsurprisingly. “Quiet enough that an old shaman and a young shaman can send forth an entreaty. Do not approach the gate; conduct your rituals to call out to them from this side. If they respond favorably, we have a beginning. If not… Best to be upon our ground, not theirs.”

“Athan’Khar is our ground,” Aresk rumbled, and then immediately wanted to punch himself. This habit of speaking before thinking reared up at the most inopportune times.

“I suspect, young hunter,” Kyomi said with a grin that showed off her pointed little canines, “that this entire enterprise will hinge upon whether you can convince them of that.”

“How do you convince the maddened, rage-altered spirits of a million murdered souls of anything,” Gabriel muttered, frowning deeply.

“That, young Deathspeaker,” said Raghann, “is a shaman’s duty.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

Bonus #30: Deathspeaker, part 2

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

Of course, it wasn’t that simple…and yet it absolutely was.

Aresk kept his mouth firmly shut during the discussion and argument which followed. There was a great deal of talking, most centered on the unsuitability of two barely adult orcs for such an important mission, and the risk of sending Mother Raghann, the High Wind’s eldest. It wasn’t that Aresk had no thoughts to contribute, of course. He wouldn’t have bothered arguing that he could handle the responsibility, anyway, as he knew well the futility of that claim in any circumstances. Rather, he itched to point out that none of them dared to question these decisions until Kyomi vanished again, in the abrupt and unpredictable manner of her kind. Obiouvly, he kept that to himself. The entire front row would have lined up to pummel him.

So he let the argument surge around, every word of it as predictable as it was futile, and took note of who was talking and who was not. His father, of course, was a prominent voice of objection to nearly every part of this. In fact, almost everyone on the lowest row of the amphitheater except himself and Gairan argued vehemently for one thing or another. Mother Raghann was silent, however, just watching and listening. The human, Arquin, also kept his mouth shut.

Aresk and Gairan spent much of the discussion exchanging significant looks. She, he could tell, was very much of his own mind about the whole business. Even given the gravity of the issue at hand, it was a subtle thrill to feel that connection with her.

In the end, Raghann finally cut across the debate by declaring that if she was too old to serve her clan, she was too old to be eldest anyway and it was high time for her to run off and get killed so Takhran could take over.

And then Arquin took advantage of the short quiet which followed to put an end to the whole conversation.

“Of course, you should do what you think is right. Personally, I’m gonna do what the kitsune told me to. I’ve had the experience of one of their kind being disappointed with me. It was…enough.”

It was a strange feeling, Aresk found, to be in firm agreement with this outsider, and to resent it so.


“And why are we hiking inland in the opposite direction from the entire continent?” Aresk demanded the next day, once their little group was out of sight of Camp Khashrek. In truth, he’d wanted to ask that question the moment they set out, but was still mulling his father’s last private words to him, instructing that he carefully watch both Arquin and Raghann, with whom Arkhosh frequently disagreed about the clan’s future. “Don’t we at least need to reach the sea? How else is the Ancient One going to get us there?”

“Athan’Khar is not approachable by sea or land,” Raghann replied, striding along without leaning on the staff she carried. There was indeed a faint stoop in the old woman’s shoulders, but her very pace was what made it noticeable. Orcs did not grow frail with age, as a rule. “The spirits are practically mindless with rage, the monsters indiscriminate in their aggression. Elves and gnomes may try their luck with some occasional success, but a human crossing the border is instantly attacked by everything within miles; an orc is…taken. We don’t know what happened to the first shaman who tried to return home, but their spirit guides grieved the loss so loudly that every other shaman was warned against the attempt.”

“So how do you get to a place if you can’t enter it?” Gairan asked.

“Good question,” Aresk grunted. “And none of this explains why we’re walking the wrong way.”

“You learn more if you let your elders finish talking, young hunter,” Raghann said, shooting him a flat look. “To answer, Gairan, the way to get into a place without crossing its borders is to simply pop up in the middle.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Aresk protested.

Raghann whacked him on the head with her staff. He sighed, but made no further comment. It was a fair blow; she had, after all, just cautioned him to keep quiet and listen till she was done explaining. Gairan gave him a commiserating little smile. Arquin, oddly, seemed so startled by the hit that his pace faltered, and then he had to jog a few steps to catch up.

“That,” Raghann continued, “is why none of this would be possible without the help of the Ancient Ones. Kyomi-sama has offered to take us directly to a place in the interior of Athan’Khar—to a sacred spot where the corruption is mild enough that she can open a way.”

“Kitsune use fae magic,” Arquin added, “which ordinarily doesn’t provide any means of instantaneous travel. But I guess if you’re a creature on her level, most of the rules just don’t apply to you. Which is kind of the point. Neither arcane teleportation nor shadow-jumping work into Athan’Khar. I’m taking it on faith that she can actually do this.”

Aresk curled his lip. “What is shadow-jumping?”

“Warlock craft,” Gairan said quietly. “Best left alone.”

“Ah.” He nodded at her in agreement. There were no warlocks in Sifan, thanks to the kitsune and various yokai, but stories of them and their vile magics survived among the clans.

“And that brings us, at long, long last, to your question, impatient boy,” Raghann said, and Aresk had to struggle not to bristle. Anyone else he would have punched right on the nose for talking down to him that way, but the eldest mother of the clan had certain privileges—which she wasn’t shy about exercising. “We are going to another piece of sacred ground, this one in Sifan. There is an old shrine of Vidius a day or two in this direction. Kyomi-sama said she can open the gate from there. The protections upon the grounds will help to shield Sifan from the madness on the other side.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask about that,” said Arquin. “Kyomi mentioned the shrine was abandoned. In fact, she said ‘one of the abandoned shrines,’ implying there were more.” He hesitated, glancing around at the sunny countryside, and Aresk repressed and urge to shove him on general principles. It was one thing to be a weak, spindly human, but did the man have to make such a nervous spectacle of it? “This whole country… Death has a presence here, like nothing else I’ve ever felt. I’m not sure what to make of it.”

“It’s not the whole country, just the island,” Gairan explained, veering in front of Aresk to walk next to Arquin. Aresk felt something unpleasant begin to rise in his throat and ruthlessly shoved it back down, knowing very well when he was being childish and irrational. He walked along in silence while Gairan talked to the human; aside from having little to contribute to the topic, he didn’t quite trust himself to speak. “Tsurikura is…well, a land of death, like you said. There was a plague here, some ten years before the Enchanter’s bane; that’s why Sifan had a conveniently unpopulated island the Ancient Ones offered to let us use.”

“Yes, very convenient,” Raghann said dryly.

“That was a poor choice of words,” Gairan agreed, nodding contritely. “Nobody knows what disease it was now, just that it killed fast, and was incredibly contagious. The Queen at the time refused to send more healers after the first dispatched died like everyone else, and ordered any boats trying to leave Tsurikura to be destroyed with fire arrows before they could reach the other islands. It’s said that every human here was dead within two months.”

“Gods,” Arquin muttered.

“And so we are not merely squatters,” Gairan continued, raising her chin with pride. “The clans are caretakers. Tsurikura is clean and verdant now, but that took years of our labor. The first orcs who came here gathered up and buried the dead with honor, cleaned and sanctified the ghost villages, repaired the shrines… It wasn’t always quite so peaceful, either. The Sifanese had avoided the island since the plague, and malignant yokai had moved in, not to mentioned anguished spirits of humans which were very restless. Our ancestors had a lot of work to do. Less now; we maintain the graveyards and shrines according to Sifanese custom, and by now priests come from Kiyosan to help. Even still, there are occasionally wandering spirits that have to be calmed. It’s a good land now, though, thanks to our work.”

“Tsurikura is not our true home,” Aresk added, “that will always be Athan’Khar, no matter what your people may do. But we have earned our place here.”

“It sounds like you have a lot to be proud of,” Arquin said with a smile.

Aresk scowled at him suspiciously, which seemed to surprise him.

Grinning, Mother Raghann prodded the human’s shoulder with her staff. “Don’t try to deal with orcs the way you would with Sifanese, young man. Especially young bucks like Aresk, here. Our ways are straightforward; anyone who thinks you’re flattering them will take it as an insult.”

“Oh…kay,” Arquin said warily. “It wasn’t meant as flattery, just a statement.”

“We are proud of what we have done here,” Gairan said simply. “Orcish pride doesn’t require validation. Aresk is right; it’s a touchy issue, that goes straight to the heart of what we’re doing right now. Tsurikura has been a home to us, but it is not our true home, our ancestral home. We have roots and ties here, now. The prospect of returning to Athan’Khar is a grand one, but it also raises some hard questions, and the prospect of loss.”

“I see,” Arquin murmured. “Makes sense…”

“There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense,” Aresk said, not even trying to keep the scowl off his face. He didn’t go so far as to bodily insert himself between Arquin and Gairan, but only because she would have whacked him for it—and worse, made fun of him. “I won’t question that the Ancient One can do what she said. Or that you can, I suppose. It’s not like I know any human death magic. But you talked as if the Empire would welcome us back with open arms. No pretty words will make me believe that.”

“Huh,” Arquin grunted. “You know… I think that’s the first time in my life someone has accused me of using pretty words.”

“Oh, don’t sell yourself short, boy,” Raghann replied with a grin. “You bargain well. I, for what it is worth, believe what you said about the Empire and its politics. But that’s not the whole story, is it?”

“The whole story is more than I could possibly know,” said Arquin. “The Empire is a big place, and sometimes it seems like everyone in it has an agenda—”

“Enough of your waffling!” Aresk growled, stepping around Gairan and punching Arquin on the shoulder, sending the human staggering.

“Stop it!” Gairan snapped—at him. She decked Aresk on the jaw, hard enough to make it clear she was serious; he actually had to take a step back to keep his balance. “You know better than that, Aresk! Don’t treat humans like orcs. Do you punch every Sifanese who smiles and lies to your face?”

“This one is not Sifanese!” Aresk snarled, angry less at her than at the fact that he was now arguing with her. “He’s Tiraan!”

“He’s still human!” she retorted. “Their way with words is complex, and they’re all too fragile for orcish handling.”

“Never been called fragile before, either,” Arquin remarked. He was now standing a few feet away, thanks to Aresk’s hit, but didn’t appear hurt despite Gairan’s concern. The whole group had stopped, and now Raghann hung back, watching the young people with an inscrutable expression. “Look, I’m not suggesting we take every orc on Tsurikura and drop them right in Athan’Khar. Even if we could somehow cleanse the whole country, that would be a bad idea.”

“Then what is the point of all this?” Aresk demanded.

“The point is it’ll take time.” Arquin resumed walking, and they fell in alongside him. “Remember, what we are doing here is an experiment. We don’t yet know if we can cleanse even part of the country. If it doesn’t work, well, that’s that. But if it does, it’s only going to be the first step in a very large, very long plan. It’s a big country, bigger than any of the Imperial provinces; recovering it will have to be done one step at a time. This is going to be the work of generations, optimistically.”

“Which, if you are right, the Empire will help with,” Gairan said, and Aresk was pleased to find skepticism on her face.

He was surprised to find it on Arquin’s, too. “I think that’ll have to be managed carefully,” said the human, frowning at the distance ahead of them. “Tiraas can probably be persuaded to help, and it certainly owes the clans that help…but I think it’ll be important to limit how much they contribute. What nobody needs is for the Empire to take over the effort, and position itself to determine what happens in a rebuilt Athan’Khar. That’s gonna be the tricky part—getting the resources and support the effort needs from Tiraas, while controlling the amount of influence it has.”

“Oh?” Raghann said in that sardonic tone of hers. “You mean, you don’t want your Empire to gain more power over its neighbors?”

“Gaining power isn’t the solution to most problems,” Arquin replied. “I mean, contradict me if I’m wrong, I know I have a lot less experience with life than you. But it seems to me that power causes more problems than it solves, and the pursuit of it makes people crazy. No, I care about the Empire, but for that reason I’m not interested in handing Athan’Khar to the Silver Throne. All the Empire’s neighbors have amicable but tense relationships with Tiraas, and I think that’s just about perfect. It forces us to stay focused and alert and prevents the kind of insane overreach that caused the Enchanter Wars.”

“Hm,” Gairan grunted, wearing a pensive frown very much like Arquin’s.

“What is it you want, then?” Aresk asked. “You want the Empire to help us, but not too much?”

“Exactly!” Arquin gave him a grin, which faltered under Aresk’s glare. “Look, you have to understand that no one in the Empire has seen an orc in a hundred years. You’re nearly mythical to us. If we just suddenly jammed both societies right next to each other, it would probably go very badly. The fact that restoring Athan’Khar is going to be such a long and detailed process creates an opportunity to do it well. It’ll let orcs and humans get to know each other again—gradually, in small doses at first. It’s a chance to build some trust and establish a lasting peace.”

Aresk physically swelled with his instinctive reply to that, but Gairan caught his eye and her expression warned of more trouble than he wanted. Instead, he let out a huff of air and kept his mouth shut.

“So…why you, then?” Gairan asked the human after a moment. “I can’t see it as coincidence that the first time anyone comes from Tiraas who cares about us and our land is the first time Vidius has called a Chosen. It makes sense, that this would be a matter of death, but at the same time that seems…ominous.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Arquin agreed, as if the thought had only just occurred to him, too. “Frankly, I don’t think Vidius has much to do with it, explicitly. I mean, that is, there’s a lot he can do to help with this, but… Well, it was my idea, and I wasn’t approaching it as a matter of death. Truthfully, I just got into a conversation a while back with the Hand of Avei about orcs and their history with the Sisterhood, and got to thinking about what it would take to repair Athan’Khar, and why nobody had tried yet. One thing just led to another…”

Aresk wanted to punch him. He wanted to punch everyone. On they walked, through the sunshine and the music of cicadas, Gairan and this human chattering along in animated conversation while he stewed in silence. He tried, as best he could, just to tune them out. Otherwise he really was going to end up punching Arquin right in his too-clever mouth, and getting himself in even worse trouble with Gairan than he already was.

Mother Raghann let herself fall to the rear of the group, and watched them in amused quiet as they walked.


It was a long day.

Traveling through the wilds of Tsurikura was Aresk’s whole life, and he loved it. But his hunts were either done in solitude or with the company of fellow hunters he was familiar and comfortable with; he enjoyed it both ways. This group was something different. Mother Raghann constantly breathing down his neck would alone have put him on edge, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. A journey with some human from Tiraas should have been painfully awkward at best; a journey with Gairan, alone, would have been exactly the opportunity he had wished for. Somehow, the combination of both was worse than Aresk could have imagined, because the two of them hit it off brilliantly.

For the most part, he kept quiet. Much of the time he simply had nothing to contribute, as he wasn’t inclined to talk with Arquin and Gairan, while happy enough to speak with Aresk, kept returning her attention to the human. After the first few recitations of his adventures, which were the most grandiose nonsense Aresk had ever heard or imagined (Centaurs? Skeleton hordes? Machine cults? The boy was either a lunatic or a damn liar) he began actively tuning them out whenever Gairan wasn’t the one speaking.

After their stop for food at midday, Aresk took to roaming wide of the group. Scouting, he told them, checking ahead and to both sides for potential threats. Of course, the greatest dangers in Tsurikura these days were bears and wild boars, and if they stumbled across a hostile yokai or something the group with two shaman and the Chosen of Vidius would obviously be safer than one hunter on his own. It offended Aresk a little that Gairan didn’t ask him to stick closer. And Raghann really didn’t need to keep giving him that knowing look whenever he drifted away.

To make it all more annoying, their pace was constrained by the human in their midst. Arquin could take a hit, as Aresk had discovered, but he lacked an orcish constitution and was winded after just a few hours of walking through forest at full speed. Rather than stopping repeatedly to rest throughout the day, they constrained their pace to what he considered a leisurely stroll. At least the human didn’t complain or beg, and even pushed himself hard enough that Raghann had to insist they stop and make camp a full hour before dark. Arquin didn’t argue very hard, and actually fell asleep as soon as they were no longer moving.

Aresk was glad to have his mouth finally shut, though not so much so that he didn’t resent the boy’s lack of help in setting up. Gairan made it worse; she seemed to think it was cute.

By the time they had built a fire, laid out some rations, and awakened their companion from his nap, Aresk was inwardly seething. Arquin wasn’t even a bad sort, objectively speaking; it wasn’t as if Aresk didn’t know humans were on the delicate side. He’d dealt with them before and didn’t mind. Under other circumstances—and if the guy hadn’t been Tiraan—he might have enjoyed the chance to get to know someone from a place so distant. But Gairan just would not stop talking to him!

“I wish I understood why us,” she said, staring quizzically at the campfire. The young shaman gave Aresk a smile, which he gladly returned. “I’m honored and not afraid of the danger, but…”

“Don’t lie to yourself, girl,” Raghann said from the other side of the fire. “If you weren’t afraid of this danger, it would make you an idiot. You’re facing it anyway, that’s what matters.”

“Do you ever get tired of lecturing people, Mother Raghann?” Aresk inquired.

“Well, it’s been seventy years and I haven’t yet, but things change all the time,” she replied, flashing her teeth at him.

Gairan reached over to jostle his knee affectionately. “Danger or no, I don’t get it. Gabriel is obviously necessary and Mother Raghann makes sense. But we’re just a couple of random young people.”

“Some things are just…as they are,” Aresk said.

“That’s not an answer, it’s avoiding the question,” she retorted.

“Yes, and I sleep very well at night,” he said, grinning. “If a question is too big to have an answer, I’m much happier not wasting time on it.”

She grinned back, and it was a wonderful shared moment. And then, of course, she had to ruin it.

“What do you think, Gabe?”

“I think if a kitsune tells me to do something, I do it,” he said after swallowing a bite of hardtack. “Learned that lesson the hard way. Either Kyomi has seen and planned far ahead and carefully chosen every stop to achieve some future goal we can’t even guess at yet… Orrrr she just thought it was funny.”

“If you only knew,” Raghann said dourly, “how often I have wondered which of those motivations inspired the Ancient Ones to bring us to this land in the first place.”

“You mentioned that yesterday at the camp,” Gairan said, shifting in place to face away from Aresk and toward Arquin. “You’ve encountered Ancient Ones before? They rarely leave Sifan.”

“Rarely, but not never,” he said, for some reason grimacing and rubbing a hand over his throat. “One of them came to the school I attend to teach magic class for a semester, though.”

“You’ve studied under a kitsune?!” Gairan leaned toward him, her expression eager and awed. Aresk clenched his fists at his sides. “Which one?”

“Ekoi Kaisa.”

“I’ve heard of Kaisa-sama! What was it like?”

“…scary,” Arquin said frankly, a wry little smile crossing his face. “Informative, though! She actually is a good teacher. But yes, generally unsettling in a way that in hindsight I’m pretty sure was deliberate.”

“So even the great Chosen of Vidius is afraid of something,” Aresk muttered.

Gairan shot him a look which was far too akin to Raghann’s knowing expressions for his liking.

“Lots of firsts today,” Arquin said lightly. “I don’t think anyone’s ever called me ‘great,’ either. Though, to be honest, if anybody was ever going to it would only be sarcastically.”

“You are a curious fellow,” Raghann mused. “One moment, almost orcish—straightforward even when you should be more discreet. The next, almost Sifanese—cagey and self-deprecating.”

“Well, maybe people are hard to understand purely in terms of where they come form,” Arquin said with a smile. “We’re all individuals. Stereotypes don’t take you far in terms of getting to know someone. It’s like I said earlier, physically recovering Athan’Khar from its condition is only half the battle. The rest of it will be getting Kharsa and Tiraan culture carefully into contact, so they can get used to not thinking of each other as enemies. That’s the only way there’s going to be permanent peace.”

This time, it was more than Aresk could take.

“And what if we don’t want permanent peace?” he snapped.

Arquin blinked at him as if confused. “Then…what’s the point of any of this?”

“Aresk has grown up with stories of how things were in the homeland,” Raghann said dryly. “Stories four generations removed, and therefore rather romantic. My own mother survived the Bane, and told me of life before it. Our people raided back and forth into N’Jendo and Viridill constantly, on a small scale, and every other generation or so gathered the clans into a horde to wage real war. The Jendi hated us. The Viridi… Orcish codes of honor are very much like Avenist battle doctrine in many ways. There was no attacking of noncombatants, mistreatment of civilians, destruction of personal property or necessary infrastructure. Warriors who violated our codes were summarily handed over to the enemy to face their justice. More importantly, our ancestors waged war because it sharpened and strengthened them. I think it’s no accident the Sisterhood immediately turned on the Empire after the Bane was used. Avenist and Kharsa fought, but they understood and respected each other. Largely because they fought.”

“Well…” Arquin picked up a stick and poked at the fire. “That was then. You don’t fight the Sifanese, do you?”

“It would be a crippling dishonor to repay them so for giving us a place,” Gairan said.

“And, once again,” Aresk added in a growl, “your people are not the Sifanese!”

“You don’t actually know who my people are,” Arquin pointed out in a mild tone, clearly not realizing how close it brought him to being clubbed. “There are a lot of ethnicities in the Empire. The Westerners alone are between three and seven nations, depending on how you count.”

“If you want our people to recover their own lands,” said Aresk, “it must be in our way. Observing our traditions!”

“And to people like Arkhosh,” Raghann said quietly, “that will mean taking up the sword. Never mind that we are a hundred years out of practice.”

“Exactly!” Aresk exclaimed. “Already we grow soft!”

“Do we?” She shrugged. “I don’t feel soft. It’s like you were saying earlier, Gabriel Arquin. Your Empire has surrounded itself with nations which could, with just a few insults, become enemies. It lives under the constant tension of having to keep those relationships amicable. It seems to me that is a fine way for a people to hone themselves. I have to do the same with half the idiots in my clan, and I give that most of the credit for keeping my mind sharp all these years. A hundred years ago, the Kharsa and the Tiraan were both broken peoples. Now we are a pacified remnant and they rule the mightiest nation in the world. Coincidence?”

“There is no comparison!” Aresk roared, shooting to his feet.

“Are you going to punch the Mother, Aresk?” Gairan asked dryly.

“Now, I think you’re both right,” Arquin said in a soothing tone, and only Gairan’s hand pushing on his leg stopped Aresk from lunging at him. “That really isn’t a fair comparison; Athan’Khar was a smaller nation and had just lost most of its population and all of its territory. The Kharsa could hardly be expected to bounce back like the Imperials. On the other hand…the world really is different, now. Trying to wage constant war would lead to complete and quick disaster, Aresk. Not least because the Empire has more people in its army than the clans have people at all, and weapons a hundred years more advanced than your ancestors faced.”

“So you think you’re stronger than we are?” Aresk snarled.

“Now, now, I don’t mean in a personal—”

“Boy, stop,” Raghann said with open amusement. “It’s a good effort, but completely misplaced. We don’t talk our way past disagreements this fundamental, Gabriel, we face them. Trying to soothe this away is just piling on additional insults.”

Arquin looked at her in silence for a moment, then up at Aresk. “So. Would I be wrong in guessing you have something of a personal problem with me, Aresk?”

“No,” Aresk grunted, forcibly relaxing his clenched fists. “No, you’re right, this is foolish. You’re just a human and I shouldn’t expect you to understand anything.”

Arquin tossed his stick into the fire and stood up.

“Don’t,” Gairan urged, and it wasn’t clear who she was talking to.

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Arquin drawled, staring at Aresk. “If it’ll maybe put this behind us and help you feel better, big guy, why don’t you take your shot.”

Aresk had been absolutely sincere in his declaration of intent to back down from this, and so it was a surprise to both of them when Arquin had no sooner shut his mouth than he got a fist across it.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

Bonus #29: Deathspeaker, part 1

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

This chapter topic was selected by Kickstarter backer Donát Nagy!

It was not a large meet, but any meet was enough to push Aresk into a rush, even when returning to the camp with an impressive kill—a moment he ordinarily savored as much as possible. Only three clans had gathered, and he had little interest in the Shadowed Wood clan. But the Cold Spray were there…

“And that means Gairan will be there,” Rortosk said in a deliberately bland tone, staring at the banners.

Aresk dropped his deer with less reverence than it deserved, just barely managing not to visibly clench his jaw in embarrassment. “What of it? I mean…I suppose.”

The old hunter grinned broadly, but clapped him on the shoulder, giving him a friendly shake for good measure. “Tell you what. Why don’t you let us finish up here? There’s not much left to do, and we’ve all seen meets before.”

“I do my fair share,” Aresk protested, straightening to his full height and squaring his shoulders.

“At this point it’s nothing but chewing the breeze with Rian and that poor fool she’s snared as an apprentice, while everybody admires our kills. I think we can manage it without you, eh?”

“Aye, go check on that father of yours,” Isnek added while the rest of the hunting party grinned agreement. “See to it he doesn’t start any feuds this time.”

Aresk didn’t bother to protest that hadn’t been an actual feud, nor entirely his father’s fault. Unable to fully repress the bounce in his step, he was already backing up toward the camp. “I don’t care what anyone says, Rortosk, sometimes you do have a soul after all.”

He wasn’t backed up so far that Rortosk’s fist failed to collide with his jaw. Aresk staggered backward, tasting blood, which he spat on the ground a moment later. Grinning at Rortosk, he pounded one fist into his opposite palm in acknowledgment of the blow, then finally turned and strode off, followed by the catcalls of the rest of the party. It wasn’t so bad, being the young pup of the group, at least once he got over his own self-consciousness. They never insulted him by taking on his share of the actual work, but as the elder hunter had pointed out, there was little enough to do at this point but unpack, and they did encourage him to live a bit when appropriate. Still, Aresk was looking forward to another youth joining the hunts just so he wasn’t the youngest anymore.

Orcs milled around the camp, both familiar faces and those of visiting sister clans. Many, residents and guests alike, were in regalia in honor of the meet; Aresk nodded politely to everyone he passed, but to those formally dressed he gave a full bow, fist over heart. The respect was earned, in his mind, both for the preservation of their traditions and for sheer perseverance; orcish regalia was not comfortable in a Tsurikura summer. Orcs were a large, solid people, bred for the colder climate of Athan’Khar; the Sifanese archipelago could be scathing at this time of year.

Camp Khashrek was the largest holding of the High Wind clan, and the very name roused bitterness in Aresk, along with the all-but-audible voice of his father growling in the back of his head. Camp, indeed. They still called it that, and it was important, even if reality gave the lie to the name. Tsurikura was not their home, but a place they were allowed to stay by the Sifanese. The clans’ holdings in this land were temporary, stopovers for the time being until they could reclaim their true lands. But a century after the apocalypse, they were not only no closer to returning to Athan’Khar or even avenging themselves against the Tiraan, and the roots they had put down here in Sifan had grown unmistakable and increasingly unlikely to be pulled up in the future.

Now, Khashrek was a town in all but name. More and more of the High Wind had drifted toward it from the outlying camps, to the point that Aresk and his father had both muttered about moving away themselves, to be closer to the wild. Even so, it wasn’t a large town, housing no more than four hundred orcs most of the time—just enough that it wasn’t quite possible to know everyone and their business. Aresk could remember a time, when he was a very small child, when the camp’s name had been at least somewhat borne out in its architecture, when even the homes with solid walls of wood were rough-hewn, insulated only with patches of clay, many having hide roofs. Now they were all permanent structures, with stone foundations and adobe walls, and it had been Aresk’s own traditionalist father who had pushed for this, albeit reluctantly. At least these were proper orcish homes of stone and plaster, accented with timber and bone, still with stretched hides shading their porches and windows but roofed in shingles or thatch. There were also some houses in the Sifanese style, whose construction had been what pushed even that traditionalist faction to act, determined to at least preserve true orcish architecture.

It wasn’t as if the Sifanese were doing it on purpose. That was almost worse; if they were trying to corrupt what was left of Kharsa culture, Aresk could at least have resented it. Orcs were allowed to visit Kiyosan for trade, and he had accompanied his father there a couple of times—enough to learn he had no taste for it, for the way the humans looked at them. The Sifanese were a famously insular people, who didn’t even like having other humans in their country, let alone orcs. They were accustomed to living by the wild dictates of the kitsune, and if the fox-goddesses said that orcs were allowed to settle on Tsurikura, well, shou ga nai. Aresk was reasonably fluent in their language and as much as he deliberately favored Kharsa even in his own head, he got a lot of use out of that phrase.

Even now, passing through Camp Khashrek, the signs were evident. Small yokai shrines in the gardens of some homes, colorful pennants acquired from human traders decorating porches. In the art painted along houses, traditional knotwork and animal spirit depictions were sometimes accompanied by elaborate geometric designs in the Sifanese style. No one was quite outlandish enough to walk around dressed in a kimono, but even among the weapons carried by fellow orcs, there were occasional naginata and katana accompanying their traditional spears and khopesh. Bit by inexorable bit, they were being absorbed by a people who didn’t even want them there.

Today, at least, the omnipresent reminders didn’t manage to sour Aresk’s mood. Without hesitation, he followed the crowd to where it was thickest: the ceremonial grounds along the west edge of Camp Khashrek, where the public amphitheater lay in the shelter of a rocky protrusion which shielded the town from the prevailing winds. The way there was crowded, not just with orcs talking or moving, but with commerce, as people from the two visiting clans had brought goods and High Wind residents had brought out their own, to make an impromptu market along the wide center street. His own hunting party would be joining them soon with their catch. It was clear, though, that the focus of the crowd and most of those present was at the ceremonial grounds. That meant something important was happening there.

That meant Gairan was likely to be there. Aresk straightened his back further, rolling his shoulders, and tried not to chafe at the delay as he had to slow with the crowd to get in. To his left, someone accidentally jostled someone else and was punched in the side of the head; he barely stepped away in time to avoid the first man staggering into him and drawing him into the scuffle. For a moment he resignedly figured there was about to be a brawl and he really would get caught up, but the clumsy orc just nodded to the one he’d bumped, pounding his fist in recognition, and received a nod in return.

The amphitheater was the only structure in Camp Khashrek surrounded by a wall, the town itself being forbidden exterior defenses by Sifanese law. Aresk had been surprised, as a boy, to learn that law was not applied selectively to orcs; Queen Takamatsu forbade fortifications except to her own lords. Each of its three entrances was flanked by two totems, proper orcish ones rather than the yokai shrines that had started going up everywhere else. Passing between the carved faces of animal spirits quieted the crowd, and there was a distinct difference between the festival atmosphere outside in the town and the more solemn one within the grounds.

Aresk stepped to the side as soon as space opened, in the broad half-ring which separated the descending tiers of the amphitheater from the wall, craning his neck to peer around. There was a meeting already in progress, a few figures standing on the stage at the lowest level, but he ignored them at first searching for—his father, as he would claim if anybody asked. But also Gairan. She had to be here somewhere, the crowd was a roughly even blend of all three tribes and she always had to be in the thick of everything…

He had to resign himself to the hopelessness of that, though, as there were far too many people standing and making their way through the various tiers to give him a clear view; all those seated with their backs to the entrances were anonymous from his angle, a lot actually invisible behind others. Aresk let out a short huff of annoyance, and then the scene below finally caught his attention.

There was a human there. Not unheard of; the Sifanese avoided the orcs, but only mostly, and they had some regular visitors who were quite friendly. The other side of their culture being so formal and orderly was that individuals who didn’t fit well in it had few opportunities to get away, and a number of them found the more plain-spoken orcs good company. This one was Punaji, though, and it was odd for one of them to come this far inland. Aresk quite liked the Punaji, for all that their boisterousness could get annoying; they made the Sifanese look like a nation of temple guardians. They were sea people, though, frequent visitors to the ports on Tsurikura’s northwestern coast where the Cold Spray made their homes, and he’d never heard of one being encountered elsewhere. This one had the distinctive black hair—also distinctively uncombed—and one of those long heavy coats they wore, which had to be brutally uncomfortable in the summer heat. Even one of their shortish, curved swords hung at his waist. More than that Aresk couldn’t tell, as the man stood with his back to him, facing Mother Raghann.

Must be important indeed, for a human to be brought into the ceremonial grounds, and welcomed to stand at the speaker’s place in the amphitheater. Aresk couldn’t help some annoyance at the presumption, though Raghann was there along with two other old orcs he recognized as Elders of the Shadowed Wood and Cold Spray clans. Clearly, the man was invited. He shuffled closer to listen, forgetting to search for Gairan and his father.

His timing was fortuitous. The human was doubtless central to whatever this meet had been called to discuss, and the discussion itself seemed not underway yet. Even in solemn quiet, the crowd of orcs filing into the amphitheater were talking softly, many giving their guest suspicious looks, and those on the stage were not yet addressing the assembled. Raghann and the human were talking, the other two Elders in conversation with people on the front row.

Then the human shifted to look around at the gathering crowd, and Aresk took an involuntary step forward, clenching his fists. That was not a Punaji. The man was far too pale, not as much as the city-dwelling Sifanese he had seen in Kiyosan, nor as dark as the suntanned travelers who came by Camp Khashrek. With that strangely tawny complexion, and that sharp, high-bridged nose, he resembled descriptions Aresk had heard of…

“Tiraan?” he grated aloud, beginning to feel his pulse rise in fury.

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder.

Aresk rounded on its owner, barely restraining the urge to lash out. Which, as it turned out, was a good thing.

“You made good time, my son,” Arkhosh said, giving him a firm shake by his grip on Aresk’s shoulder. “I hoped your party would return in time to see at least the outcome of this meeting. You haven’t missed anything of consequence.”

“Father!” Aresk barely managed to lower his voice to a pitch suitable for the reverence owed the ceremonial grounds. “Is that man Tiraan?”

Arkhosh’s eyes shifted past him to stare down at the “guest” on stage with the Elders, his face betraying nothing. Aresk knew the deep well of conviction that motivated his father, but Arkhosh was a respected man in the community, and his role as the public voice of the traditionalist faction demanded composure; he never revealed more than he meant to, at least in public.

“That boy,” Arkhosh said in the same soft tone, “is indeed of the Empire. He is an emissary from the Vidians, a speaker for the dead. And as his visit has the backing of the Queen and one of the kitsune, the Elders have agreed to hear him speak. I cast my own vote in favor of hearing him out. Tiraan or no, remember the courtesy owed a guest of the clan.”

Aresk struggled to control himself. Maybe someday he would master his father’s confident self-restraint, but sometimes—like now—he despaired of it. “We are to sit and listen to Tiraan lies?”

Arkhosh shook him again, still gently enough to be affectionate, but clearly making a point. “No one has seen a Tiraan in a hundred years, my son. This one can do little enough harm on his own, and even if his presence is as worthless as I suspect, it costs us nothing and may profit us to see and hear him. Always seek to know your enemy, as best you can. Come, I want you to sit with me at the front.” He paused, then gave Aresk another jostle. “You are a man, a hunter, and a member of the community. I expect you to control yourself, but speak if you see a need, son.”

“Yes, Father,” Aresk said, squaring his shoulders. It would not be his first time sitting at the lowest levels with his father, whose place there had been well-earned, but this invitation to participate was new, and filled him with such emotion it was all he could do to cling to his own composure as he followed Arkhosh down to the front row. With pride, yes, but also trepidation. The thought of embarrassing himself, or worse, his father… What could he say? Would he know what was right to contribute? Maybe it would be better just to remain silent. But after Arkhosh had specifically asked him to speak at need, would that disappoint him?

Aresk’s equilibrium was not helped by what he found at the bottom level. There was an open space, which Arkhosh had clearly kept for them, and right next to it sat Gairan.

She looked up, and the grin of delight that blossomed on her broad features made several of his organs evidently displace themselves. Gairan wore regalia today, he saw, and it suited her amazingly well. Aresk had always thought her pretty, but over the last several times they had met, he had begun to develop the opinion that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

He was aware that meant he was in real trouble.

“Aresk,” she said as he sat down beside her on the bench, punching his shoulder and setting his chest to an unmanly flutter that he dearly hoped was invisible. “They said you were off hunting! I was afraid I wouldn’t get to see you at this meet.”

“You should be so lucky,” he replied in as close to a casually jocular tone as he could manage. Out of respect for the bones and feathers which draped her robes, he had to content himself with jabbing her with an elbow. If he damaged her formal regalia…well, that was all he needed. “And look at you! A shaman in your own right, now!”

“Just as you’re a hunter,” she replied, baring tusks in a broad grin. In the next moment they both fell silent in the awkwardly sudden awareness that as fully recognized adults, it was about time for them each to be looking for a mate…

Sitting on Aresk’s other side, his father made a sound deep in his throat that could have meant anything. It was only Aresk’s deep, personal respect for him that restrained him from punching the older orc right on the ear.

The spirits continued to bless Aresk’s timing, and he was spared having to sit through any more discomfort. On the stage just in front of him, Mother Raghann had stepped over to the back and struck the hanging bronze bell twice with the head of her staff.

She paused for two heartbeats before striking it twice more, and then did the same a third time. By the end, every orc in the ceremonial grounds had fallen silent and either taken a seat or stood against the outer wall; out of respect for a meeting in progress, those who had not entered in time refrained from crowding through the gates.

The old woman turned back to face them, planting her staff against the ground with a soft thump that was plainly heard in the sudden silence.

“We,” she said, her voice no less strong for the faint creak it had acquired over her long years, “the Elders of the High Wind, the Shadowed Wood, and the Cold Spray clans, have called this meet to hear a request from this visitor.” She lifted her staff again to point at the human, who nodded acknowledgment at her. Not the correct thing to do at that moment, but aside from some faint shuffling in the stands, no one commented. It was not exactly fair to expect this Tiraan to be familiar with their etiquette, and his intent was clearly respectful. “This is Gabriel Arquin, from Tiraas.” Several of the respected members of the community who ranked a seat on the front had to turn around and glare upward to silence the ensuing muttering, including Arkhosh. “He is the Chosen of Vidius, and has been brought here with the blessing of our host, Queen Takamatsu, by the Ancient One Kyomi, to bring us a proposal.”

“Vidius has no Chosen,” scoffed a man Aresk did not know, who by his style of dress and skin color was of the Shadowed Wood. To be invited to sit there in the front, he must have been fairly important in his clan.

Gabriel Arquin glanced at Raghann, who just raised her chin slightly, and Arkesh couldn’t quite repress a sneer. Couldn’t the boy speak for himself?

“He does now,” Arquin said in the next moment, clearly figuring out that nobody was going to hold his hand. “I’m the first. I’m sure that must seem strange, coming out of nowhere like this, but let me just tell you it’s giving me a lot more credit than I’ve earned if you think I managed to trick a kitsune.”

All three Elders on the stage smiled at that, and there were a few chuckles of acknowledgment from the crowd.

Arquin drew in a breath, and subtly squared his shoulders—a gesture Aresk might have missed, had he not been peering at the human with a hunter’s intensity. Chosen or not, the boy was nervous. Well, so much the better. Any member of his demented, murdering nation should be, showing his face here. Arquin shifted his left hand to the hilt of his sword, and Aresk’s eyes fixed on that. Not the hand he would use to draw it, but still…

“I’ve come with a proposal,” the human said when the soft amusement faded. “I am not going to make you a promise, because I honestly don’t know if this will work. But I believe it should be tried. I have consulted with my cult and with that of Salyrene about the feasibility of this, and both believe it is…possible. It will require the participation of your clans, however. Not just for your unique, ah…perspective, but because it should be your right to determine whether this proceeds at all.”

“Enough waffling, boy,” a Cold Spray woman in the front row said. “Spit it out. What is it you want to do?”

Arquin shifted again, once more straightening his shoulders, though Aresk was still watching his sword. There was something there… His concentration was broken by the Chosen’s next words, however.

“I want to heal Athan’Khar.”

All respect for the solemnity of the ceremonial grounds was lost in the hubbub that erupted. A lot was general confusion and disbelief, but there was plenty of negatory hissing, as well as the approving stomping of feet. Gairan’s feet were among those exuberantly slammed against the ground, Aresk noted with a pang.

Raghann whipped her staff around and whacked at the bell until there was silence again. Neither she nor the other two Elders looked surprised. Of course, they had cooked this up between them; they wouldn’t have brought this human here unless they knew exactly what this was all about.

“There are indications that the land is beginning to heal naturally,” Arquin said. “The corruption is receding, and by this time the forest seems completely natural for almost a mile south of the river border. Humans don’t go there, obviously, but gnomes have reported on the state of the country. The monsters within Athan’Khar are growing less aggressive, too. It’s been forty years since any crossed the river without specific provocation.”

“What is that?” Aresk demanded suddenly, pointing. His father and Gairan both turned their heads to frown at him.

Arquin turned to him too, blinking. “What’s…what?”

“Your sword,” Aresk said, deliberately not looking at anything but the human. Maybe if he couldn’t actually see the entire crowd staring at him, the self-consciousness wouldn’t crush him bodily… “The one your hand is on. There’s light flickering at the edge of the scabbard. Are you doing magic?”

An unpleasant murmur rose from several directions.

“Oh,” Arquin said hastily, “don’t worry, that’s—”

“Remember where you are, boy,” Arkhosh rumbled. “You don’t tell us not to worry when a Tiraan is doing surreptitious arcane magic at us.”

“If I could explain?” Arquin said, frowning in annoyance. As much as Aresk wanted to take offense on behalf of his father, Arkhosh had interrupted, and this was the first time the human had shown some proper spine. In the next moment he tensed, reflexively reaching for his hunting knife, when Arquin fully drew the sword.

It was not, as he had thought, one of the scimitars the Punaji often carried. The curve of the blade was almost serpentine. Aside from its gleaming cutting edge, the blade itself was black, and lined with symbols which pulsed blue in time with its master’s voice.

“Ariel is a kind of all-purpose magical aid,” the human explained. “In this case, she is translating. I don’t actually speak either Sifanese or Kharsa; the magic lets me communicate.”

“You call your sword a she?” the Shadowed Wood man from earlier said in a dry tone. There was some gruff laughter from the stands, till Raghann raised her staff menacingly toward the bell.

“She is a talking sword,” Arquin replied flatly, returning the weapon to its sheath. “Her voice is feminine. And she is under strict instructions not to talk here because she’s rude and generally obnoxious.”

Arkhosh patted Aresk’s shoulder, leaning toward him to murmur, “Well spotted, son.”

Aresk could not help straightening his back in pride, and then further when Gairan gave him a warm smile.

“Back to the point, then,” said Takhran, the second-eldest member of the High Wind clan after Raghann. “How is it you propose to heal Athan’Khar? And why would you suddenly decide to do this?”

“The why is simply because it should be done,” Arquin said firmly. “I don’t know that anybody needs a reason beyond that. The how is the complicated part, at least potentially. As I said up front, I’m proposing to try; I can’t be sure how well this would work. Cleansing corruption is fairly straightforward according to several magical disciplines; the problem in Athan’Khar is that the corruption is sentient, and angry.”

“And wouldn’t you be?” someone shouted from the back. Nobody that distant from the position of honor near the stage should have interrupted the meeting, and indeed there was an immediate scuffle as the speaker was pounded by his neighbors. From around the amphitheater, though, several feet were stomped in agreement.

“Absolutely,” said Arquin. “That’s not in question. Justified or not, though, the twisted and enraged state of the spirits in Athan’Khar has to be incredibly painful for them, and I don’t think they should be left in that condition, not if they can be helped. Wouldn’t you want to be?”

“Why now?” Takhran asked.

“There was never a Chosen of Vidius before now,” Gairan said before Arquin could answer. The human turned to her and nodded in respect, giving the young shaman a small smile.

Aresk couldn’t quite put words to the emotion that rose in his throat, but he was not enjoying it.

“The problem, then,” Arquin continued, “is trying to heal a land that actively fights you in the process. My cult has some experience in dealing with angry spirits, and will help in any and every way possible. That won’t be enough, though. There are very few Vidians who aren’t human, relatively speaking, and even if I could get every elf, gnome, and dwarven cleric of the cult to work at this, they still wouldn’t be orcs. Not being immediately attacked by the spirits is not the same as getting them to cooperate. It’s very likely that your shaman are the only people the spirits of Athan’Khar will even listen to. There are many ways the followers of Vidius and Salyrene can facilitate this, and we will do everything we can, but it must be shaman of the clans who take the lead.”

“And your Empire?” Arkhosh demanded. “Are we to believe Tiraas will just sit passively and let Athan’Khar be restored? You suggest we should send our shaman to be exposed to Tiraan assassination in what you acknowledge might be a vain hope!”

There was both hissing and stomping in response; Raghann hefted her staff, but quiet fell again before she could strike the bell.

“First, we have to try,” Arquin answered. “If this doesn’t work, it won’t matter. But if it does, if we can raise a real prospect of restoring Athan’Khar and returning the clans to their home, it’s very likely the Empire will bend its resources to help.”

That time, Raghann had to sound the bell repeatedly to stifle the uproar, and it took more than a few seconds.

“What do you think, Aresk?” Arkhosh asked quietly, his voice disguised by the noise.

“I don’t trust a Tiraan saying things that are obviously too good to be true,” Aresk answered.

His father’s faint smile said he shared that doubt. “I mean, of him.”

Aresk hesitated, narrowing his eyes, conscious of Gairan watching him from the other side and listening. “He…speaks well, father. Straightforward. The Sifanese hide everything behind formality and the Punaji play about like children. It bothers me, the thought that of the human nations we know it’s the Tiraan who are most like orcs.”

“Don’t judge any clan by one individual, let alone a nation that size,” Arkhosh murmured, “and never judge an individual by what he says when he wants something.”

“Yes, father.”

Silence finally fell again, and they had to cut the conversation short. Arquin had stood still throughout, and Aresk had to respect his composure; even the faint signs of nervousness he’d shown before had melted away. Now, he was simply waiting for quiet so he could continue.

“I gather you don’t know a lot about our history,” the human said at last.

“You presume a lot, boy,” Arkhosh replied, “if you think we care about your history.”

Feet were stomped in agreement, but this time Arquin continued without waiting for order to restore itself. “It matters, here. The last your people knew of the continent, you were rescued by the Silver Legions and then the kitsune brought you here. Am I right?”

“Yes,” Raghann said simply. “Go on.”

Arquin nodded. “If you haven’t followed word from Tiraas after that, you may not know that the Empire tore itself apart after the Enchanter’s Bane was used. That was no great triumph; every human nation reacted with horror at the atrocity of it. Every province rose up in rebellion. Tiraas itself was so beset with riots that the Emperor had to impose martial law, and even that didn’t work. By the time rebel forces had converged on the capital, his own government had collapsed due to the Sisters of Avei fighting Imperial guards for control of the city and the Thieves’ Guild assassinating every official of the civilian government they could reach. No one in the Tiraan Empire is proud of what we did to your people. Even now, it’s remembered as our greatest shame. At the time, it completely broke the Empire.”

The murmuring that rose up was more subdued than before. Aresk sat bolt upright on his bench, trying to digest that. How much of it could be true? Then again, why would the Chosen lie?

The worst part was the realization that if Arquin spoke the truth, the clans had all but condemned themselves by refusing to hear emissaries from Tiraas for the last hundred years. In withdrawing into Tsurikura to rebuild their strength, they would have wasted who knew how many opportunities to return home and try to rebuild already…if this account was right.

“And yet, there is an Empire now,” Arkhosh said with naked skepticism. “Because we have not accepted visitors from Tiraas does not mean we all live under rocks, boy. There is plenty of talk in Sifan about the looming menace of the Tiraan Empire.”

“You’re correct,” Arquin replied. “There is a Tiraan Empire, but it’s not the same one. It was put back together, piece by piece, in the years following the war. It uses as much of the same symbolism and pageantry of the original as it can, because that’s a way for the people in power to stay in power. But structurally? It almost doesn’t compare. The Emperor can’t just do whatever he wants anymore; his power is checked by the noble Houses. The Army itself is constrained by law to consist of one-third levies from House guards, which means they can put a cap on how many forces he has at his disposal. The provincial governments have a great deal more internal sovereignty. The Universal Church is far more powerful, and has a lot of sway with the public—the Archpope can give a sermon and turn a lot of people against the Silver Throne. Tiraas has no navy at all; the Empire relies on treaties with the Punaji and the Tidestrider clans to secure its coasts. And above all, everyone remembers Athan’Khar. The last Imperial dynasty was brought down by the outrage of the public, and Emperor Sharidan doesn’t dare forget that. If anything, he is more vulnerable to being ripped off his throne if he oversteps than the last dynasty were. The idea of waging war on the orcs… It’s laughable, frankly. It would enrage a big swath of the Empire’s citizens, and send most of Sharidan’s political enemies circling like vultures for a chance to take him down.

“There’s another side to that coin,” Arquin continued, raising his voice slightly above the ensuing mutters until they faded. “Sharidan’s very first action as Emperor was to form a treaty with the drow of Tar’naris.”

“No one forms treaties with drow!” exclaimed the Shadowed Wood dignitary who kept finding fault with everything the human said.

“That treaty is real,” said Takhran. “That much, even I have heard.”

“Not all drow are alike,” Arquin agreed. “Not even all Themynrites. Just because nobody can deal diplomatically with the Nathloi doesn’t mean we can’t with Narisians—and I don’t know enough about Sifanese politics to guess, but the lack of a treaty with Nathloss may just mean it hasn’t been tried. Tar’naris and the Empire get along quite well, now. One of my best friends is Narisian, and she’s easily the most rational person I know. The point is, the Narisian Treaty is one of the most popular things the Empire has done in recent years, even though it involves committing Imperial troops to help hold their Scyllithene border. Sharidan has not only proved he’s willing to offer a hand to former enemies; he’s learned there’s a big political advantage in it for him.

“I don’t work for the Imperial government,” Arquin said, once again pressing on despite muttering around him. “I can’t promise anything about what the Silver Throne will do; everything I have to say on that subject is my opinion as an informed citizen. And I certainly didn’t come here to sell the Empire to you. Having grown up in the thing, I think it’s better for its people than either anarchy or warring feudal states, and I think Sharidan Tirasian is reasonable and more inclined to be helpful than he is to be difficult. That’s about the extent of my patriotism. If you’re still too disgusted at the idea of dealing with Tiraas to even try, then…I guess there’s nothing more to talk about, there. But since the Empire did this to your people, if they can be persuaded to foot the bill for cleaning it up, well…that seems fair, to me.”

That earned him a round of exuberant stomping, though Arkhosh quickly retorted, “None of which matters if your whole idea proves to be unworkable in the first place.”

“Yes,” Arquin agreed. “I think involving the Empire would be a bad idea unless we can be certain this is doable.”

“Very well,” Arkhosh replied, “you’ve talked a lot of grand concepts. Heal Athan’Khar, make peace. What, specifically, are you proposing to do? What do you need from us, and what do you offer? The journey to Athan’Khar is a very long one to make on the basis of such limited prospects, Deathspeaker.”

“I’m offering the services of myself and my valkyrie allies to aid in contacting the spirits in whatever way is necessary,” said Arquin. More murmuring swelled up at that; the aid of soul reapers was not a small thing. “I have also secured the assistance of Salyrite scholars to deal with the magic involved. What I propose, in this specific case, is a small team; we are looking to ascertain whether this can be done, remember, not heal the whole of Athan’Khar right away. It’s barely a beginning. To that end, we will need the help of at least one orcish shaman. I would suggest maybe two or three, but you know your business better than I. And as for the trip, I am given to understand that it will only be a journey of a day or two.”

Raghann struck the bell to silence the widespread scoffing that ensued.

“Let us not dismiss anything without thought,” Arkhosh agreed, turning to stare at the crowd. “We have heard some surprising things today. I’m sure the Deathspeaker, who has been so careful not to make promises he can’t keep, would not say such things without reason. How, then,” he asked, turning back to Arquin, “do you propose to reach Athan’Khar from Tsurikura in two days?”

“With my help.”

She had not been there before; she did not appear. It was simply as if she had always been part of the scenery, and everyone only now noticed. The kitsune stood nimbly atop the bell itself, balanced on her toes; she wore a black kimono that matched the color of her ears and tail, with a plain katana and wakizashi thrust through her sash.

Immediately, every orc in the place surged to their feet and then knelt in respect, save the three Elders on the stage. Arquin, who had turned to her without evident surprise, looked rapidly back and forth at the prostrate orcs in bafflement.

“I do not do this to rush you away, honored guests,” Kyomi said with a gracious little smile, inclining her head. “You have been good neighbors and good caretakers for this piece of our realm. The clans of Athan’Khar have been offered welcome in Sifan, and it shall not be rescinded, so long as your good stewardship continues. But it is a painful thing, to be cut off from one’s history, and my sisters and I are pleased to help you in recovering it, if we may.”

She hopped lightly down to the ground, whereupon the Elders bowed deeply to her. After a confused pause, Arquin did likewise.

“So, before committing great effort to this task, I call a band of heroes to see whether it can be done. Raghann, daughter of Aghren, Elder and chief shaman of the High Wind clan, you shall lead it with your wisdom and experience. Gabriel Arquin, who has brought us this chance and presents its best hope, will of course go. As this is a quest for the future of the orcish people, the young should have a place as well. And so two more will join them, a shaman and a hunter. Of the Cold Spray clan, Gairan, daughter of Grensha.”

Aresk thought for certain his heart couldn’t pound any harder or higher in his throat than at that announcement. The kitsune’s very next words proved him wrong.

“And of the High Wind clan, Aresk, son of Arkhosh.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

14 – 33

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

Things looked more optimistic back outside. Imperial Square was still riled up, and the re-appearance of the armored and bloodied Hand of Avei with her mixed escort only stirred the pot further. Trissiny and company ignored the increasingly curious crowds, heading straight for the area in front of the Temple of Avei, where a ring of Silver Legionnaires and Imperial troops had appeared. Both parted before Trissiny without argument, as most of the women accompanying her were also in Legion armor, though a few gave sidelong looks at the three Guild enforcers.

“Toby,” Trissiny said in relief, immediately striding to his side.

He was sitting on the temple steps between Gabriel and a priestess who was in the process of cleaning blood off her hands, a nearby Legionnaire holding a bowl of water for her. Toby looked up and waved at Trissiny, chewing on a bite of the meat pie in his hand. “Triss! Don’t worry, clean bill of health here. How’d it go?”

“You do not have a clean bill of anything,” the priestess said severely. “Shut mouth, open mouth, insert food! He will be fine, General,” she added in a more moderate tone to Trissiny. “It was very fortunately just tissue damage, goddess be thanked. He wouldn’t be up already if I’d needed to stitch any organs. The light can mend flesh, but there is no quick cure for blood loss. He is to eat well and not exert himself for at least two days.”

“Thank you very much, Sister,” Trissiny said fervently.

“I can follow directions, you know,” Toby remarked. “Even without Trissiny’s help.”

“Then you are a rare jewel among men,” the sister replied sardonically.

Gabriel unconvincingly hid a laugh beneath a cough. “Anyway. What’s the news? I don’t see a certain someone in chains…”

Trissiny sighed, casting a sharp look back at the looming edifice of the Grand Cathedral. “No…and apparently you won’t in the near future. The Archpope really dug his heels in to uphold sanctuary for Syrinx. I wasn’t expecting that. And frankly, I don’t know why it was that important to him.”

“You have to consider just what kind of creature Syrinx is,” said Principia. Her squad had, without orders, arranged themselves in a loose inner ring inside the existing circle of soldiers, further separating the group from the crowd outside. The three enforcers had inserted themselves in the circle surprisingly seamlessly. “So much of what she’s gotten away with has been due to playing various forces against each other, with the trade-off of having to rein in her behavior—at least in public. Now? Justinian is the only one protecting her, which means he can keep her on a much shorter leash. There’s nowhere else for her to turn if he chooses to cut her loose. And with the cat out of the bag, she no longer has to hide her ugly streak. Politics aside, he just gained an extremely lethal weapon with its limiters removed. We’d better all expect to see some more considerable damage caused by that woman before someone finally manages to put her down.”

“I don’t know what’s been happening here,” the priestess of Avei interjected, frowning, “but that is the Bishop of the Sisterhood you’re talking about, Lieutenant.”

“Not anymore, she’s not,” Trissiny said sharply.

“She’s the one who made that gash you just mended, Sister,” Gabriel added.

“Should this conversation perhaps be held in a less public setting?” Corporal Shahai suggested.

“The hell with that! At exactly what point are you all going to be done covering for that woman?” Covrin snapped, clenching her fists.

“Easy,” Trissiny soothed. “Discretion is a good habit to be in, Corporal, but in this case Covrin has an excellent point. This entire debacle has unfolded because so many people were willing to protect Syrinx’s secrets. I don’t propose to indulge her any further.”

“What, exactly, did she do?” the priestess asked uncertainly.

“Exactly the same shit everyone’s always known she was up to,” Covrin replied, curling her lip, “but everyone was too chicken to say anything about.”

“All relevant details will be public soon enough, Sister, I’ve made sure of that,” Trissiny interrupted before the priestess could call Jenell down for insubordinate conduct. The paladin put herself physically between them, catching Covrin’s eyes. “For now, there’s the question of what you want to do next. This kind of thing can mess up a career in the Legions, but I’m sure we can straighten it out. If that’s what you want. It’s up to you where you go from here, Covrin. You’ve done more than enough and the Sisterhood has no call to ask you for more. And…I owe you an apology—”

“No, you don’t,” Covrin said adamantly, shaking her head. “Is this about you helping get me into the Legions in the first place? Then I have no quarrel with you, General Avelea. You didn’t do any of this, and you’re the one who came here to straighten it out as soon as you knew. In the entire damn Sisterhood you and Locke are the only people who’ve tried to help me. Thanks for trying, Locke,” she added, turning to Principia. “It wouldn’t have worked, back then, just made me more of a target. But you tried, and I’ll remember that.”

Grip and Shahai both turned speculative looks on Principia, who just nodded back to Jenell. “I’d like to think I could’ve helped, but…hell, you may be right.”

“Then the choice is yours, Covrin,” said Trissiny. “What is it you want to do next?”

She hesitated a bare second before squaring her shoulders and answering. “I…want out. I’m so done with this whole cult. Basra was an open secret, and it keeps sticking out in my mind that the only two people who’ve tried to do anything about her are the only two Eserites in the entire Sisterhood. I am done with this bullshit. I quit.”

“Okay,” Trissiny said calmly, nodding. “Here’s the problem: I’ve checked, and according to Legion regulations this situation isn’t grounds for an honorable discharge, so—”

“Are you serious?!” Jenell exploded, clenching her fists again. “After all that—”

“Kid.” Grip turned fully around and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Let her talk.”

Trissiny acknowledged the enforcer only with a fleeting glance. “…so I’m going to have to go in there and spend some time pulling strings and yelling at people. I have never actually tried to circumvent procedures like this before, so I honestly don’t know how long this is going to take. Meanwhile, Covrin, I’m afraid we’ll need to stash you somewhere. Legion SOP would be to detain you while the situation is sorted out, since even acting on my orders you were technically wildly insubordinate to a superior. I’m assuming you would prefer not to spend any time in a cell?”

Jenell folded her arms. “You assume right.”

“I figured,” Trissiny said with the ghost of a grin. “We did prepare for that, fortunately.”

“Very conveniently,” Gabriel piped up, “we are within spitting distance of the central temples of Omnu and Vidius, as well. I’ve had my people on standby to discreetly take in guests. Not that the Omnists wouldn’t be excellent hosts, I’m sure,” he added, lighly patting Toby’s shoulder, “but if there’s a chance of Legionnaires trying to fetch you before Triss can put a stop to it, you want to be among the Vidians. They can smile pleasantly and make Avenists chase their tails basically forever. Ah, no offense to…everyone present, it occurs to me.”

“Offended would be if that were untrue,” said the priestess, giving him a sidelong look. “As it is, the reminder is just annoying.”

“I doubt it’ll come to that,” Principia added to Jenell, “but it hurts nothing to be prepared. Shahai, Avelea—any insight into regulations that would help, here?”

Ephanie and Nandi exchanged a look. “The General’s correct about the regs,” Ephanie said after a pause for thought. “But…there’s necessarily some leeway in interpretation on some points.”

“I am aware of some precedents,” Nandi added, “which could be made applicable here, with a little creativity.”

“Good. I want you two to accompany and assist General Avelea. The fewer bridges burned, the better,” she added to Trissiny.

“Good thinking, Locke.”

“Do you expect a lot of trouble with this?” Toby inquired. “It seems both reason and justice are on your side, here. Surely the High Commander will agree.”

“The High Commander,” Trissiny said with a sigh, “is the head of a military chain of command, and has had people going around and over her head all day. Her first reaction when I showed her Covrin’s files of evidence on Syrinx was anger at Covrin for hoarding that instead of trying to prosecute it through the system. That’s why I opted to carry out our sting operation without informing her, and she’s not going to be pleased about that. Don’t worry, I will straighten this out, it just may take some doing. All right, Covrin, I know you don’t know Gabriel well but I can attest you’re safer with him than basically anywhere. I’ll get this done as quickly as I can.”

“I appreciate it, Avelea,” Covrin said, her tone much more subdued than previously. “All of it. Everything.”

“So!” Gabe said brightly, looking around. “That’s settled. Now, who wants to loan the Hand of Omnu a shirt?”


The afternoon had worn on by the time Trissiny, far more tired and introspective, crossed the main sanctuary toward the front doors of the temple again. She ignored the whispers that followed her; at least no one dared try to approach her directly. Walking around in bloodstained armor doubtless helped with that. A point came where it was hopeless to try to avoid attention, and one had to settle for managing the impression one made.

To her surprise, Toby was waiting near the front doors. More surprising than his presence was his attire; he had acquired a set of Cultivator formal robes, such as he’d worn at that disastrous party in Calderaas. It was no great mystery where, since the temple of Omnu was right across the Square. Still, even as impressive a figure as he made in those stately garments, it looked almost peculiar. Toby was so much more Toby in the casual, working-class shirts and trousers he preferred.

“You look weary,” he said with a smile as she approached, “but not upset. Is that a good sign?”

“As good as I could have reasonably hoped for,” she agreed, and they fell into step together, exiting the temple. “Everything is…arranged.”

“How bad was it?” he asked quietly.

Trissiny shook her head. “I’m just glad it all happened behind closed doors. Rouvad means well and does her best, but…” She hesitated; they were stepping down from the front stairs of the city now, into the noise of Imperial Square, and the pair of them still made a visual impression that seemed to discourage people from coming closer, despite all the unabashed staring. Still, she pitched her voice a little lower. “It would be very unhealthy for the Sisterhood if the Hand of Avei publicly expressed a lack of faith in the High Commander.”

“Yet you feel it,” he murmured.

“This is not a time for soldiers,” Trissiny all but whispered. “Rigidity and over-reliance on systems are what allowed Syrinx to flourish. What allow Justinian to work his tentacles through the whole Empire. Rouvad is a good woman and a good leader, but she exemplifies those failings, and our…conversation…made it clear that she isn’t about to change.”

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry.” Trissiny threaded her arm through one of his, still gazing ahead even as he looked at her in surprise. “I know it’s a little late now to bring it up, but I am so sorry, Toby. You never owed me anything. It should have been your choice who to tell, and when. No one is entitled to be in your business like that without your consent.”

“It’s okay, Triss,” he said, squeezing her arm. “Honestly, I should have been more open with you. With a lot of people. Not that I don’t agree with your point, in principle, and I’d never tell anyone else how to live their lives, but for me? Keeping silent was never a reasoned decision, just nerves and cowardice. Better to have it done with. Still, I appreciate it. So… Does this mean we’re going to talk about the other thing she dragged into the light?”

Trissiny heaved a soft sigh. “I don’t…see how any good would come of it.”

Again, he gave her a gentle squeeze. “Maybe not. You still need to talk with him.”

“Toby…no, I don’t. You heard Vesk; it would be a mistake to dwell on anything that creature told us. And ours is a solitary path. You know it isn’t always going to be like this, the three of us working together. Paladins live short, dangerous, isolated lives.”

“Who’s to say?” he mused. “Things are changing. This new way works, Trissiny. It works in the world as it is now. I think it would be a mistake to try to judge yourself against the Hands of Avei of ages past. They weren’t equipped to deal with the modern world. To be brutally honest, I’ve read the histories and the Aveniad and it doesn’t seem like a good half of them were mentally equipped for the world they actually lived in.”

Her laugh was somewhat bitter, but still amused. Toby smiled and bumped her gently before continuing.

“That aside, you can’t leave something like that just…hanging. Take it from me. You’ve got to talk this out with him, one way or the other.”

“I…will think about it.”

“Triss…”

“I’ll think about it.”

He sighed. “Okay. Just actually do think about it, and don’t say that simply to stall. Promise me that?”

“All right, you old nursemaid, I promise,” she said, jostling him right back.

“Oh, and Schwartz turned up,” he said with a grin. “I actually feel sort of bad; he tried to join us outside the temple but the soldiers wouldn’t let him through.”

“What? Oh, Hershel.” Trissiny covered her eyes with her free hand. “He could’ve just yelled!”

“Herschel? Yell? When people are conducting delicate healing and then having serious discussions? He would never. He caught up with us at the temple, though, and Covrin was glad to see him. I hate to sound mercenary,” he went on more solemnly, “but was it worth butting heads with Rouvad and possibly damaging your relationship? Surely Covrin would have been okay…”

“I wasn’t trained intensively as a priestess,” Trissiny said, “but I was educated in the basics. One of the matters that often comes down to Avenist clerics to handle is helping victims of abuse. One of the first things you do with such a victim is give her back her power. Give her choices to make, even small ones, and then see to it that what she says, goes. Covrin has been horribly failed and in fact betrayed by the Sisterhood. I can’t have it impose on her any further.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Good. Well, that sort of comes to the reason I came to meet you. Covrin’s not at the temple anymore.”

She came to a halt; they were more than halfway across the Square at that point. “What? Where? Is she all right?”

“If anything, I think she’s even safer,” Toby said dryly. “She carried on making decisions as soon as you were gone. You might actually get a kick out of this…”


“Thanks, Denise,” Grip said, depositing a stack of coins on the counter and handing one of the sweet rolls to Jenell. “Keep the change.”

“You know, you really don’t have to keep buttering me up, Tessa,” Denise replied with a smile. “Randy’s crap wasn’t entirely your fault, and you’re already one of my best customers even without tips!”

“Lady, nothing I do is to appease my guilty conscience,” the enforcer said flippantly, already backing out of the enclosed pastry stand. “Don’t have one. You just keep making the best shit in town and I’ll keep coming back. Deal?”

“See you next time, then,” the baker said, waving as the two women ducked back out into the falling twilight. The fairy lamps had just come on while they were under the little stand’s awning, adding a clean glow to the dimness.

“You seem so…nice,” Jenell said, staring at Grip and not yet taking a bite of her sweet roll.

“Yeah? You seem so…surprised.”

“Well, the way everyone reacted when you offered to, y’know, take me in… It seemed like even the other enforcers were scared of you.”

“Nah, Duster’s a pal of mine and Ninetails is a particular kind of crazy that makes her pretty much impervious to my charms.” Grip took a bite of her roll, ambling down the street in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and Jenell finally did likewise. They chewed in silence for a bit before the older woman swallowed and continued. “An enforcer works through fear. The entire Guild does, even those who walk a subtler path than I do. That’s the point of us, to give the bastards something to be afraid of so they stay in line. The most important thing about using fear as a weapon is not to do so indiscriminately. Mad dogs get put down. People have to know that you’re dangerous, but they also have to know that you’re only dangerous under specific conditions, and that you won’t come after ’em unless they make it necessary. That’s the entire point, kiddo. We exercise fear to get results, not because it’s fun to scare people.”

Jenell nodded seriously, chewing away at her treat with a pensive frown. “I hope this isn’t gonna cause you trouble.”

“I love trouble,” Grip said frankly.

“I mean…of the serious kind. Until General Avelea gets the Sisterhood squared away…”

“That’s Thorn to you, apprentice. And as for the Sisterhood, Farzida Rouvad can kiss my ass. I almost wish I’d be getting the chance to tell her so myself, but if I know my girl, by the time Thorn is through applying her boot up and down that temple every living soul within will know the score. Nah, don’t worry about it. Everything’s probably sorted out by now, and even if there are snags, it’ll be fine.”

“Seems like a delicate line to walk,” Jenell murmured. “A lot of the things you say, I can imagine Basra saying.”

“I believe that,” Grip agreed, nodding. “I’ve known people like Syrinx. You’ll know more of them, if you stick with this. The difference is that you’ll be able to deal with them in the future. I’ll be frank, kid, you fucked up in multiple directions with that one. You should have let Keys help you—she’s twice as smart as Syrinx on her worst day. You should’ve leveraged that witch boy you’re so fond of, or your acquaintanceship with Thorn’s fellow apprentices. Trying to finish Syrinx yourself was a mistake, and even if that weren’t true, the way you went about it was doomed if Thorn hadn’t intervened.”

“Well, what the hell would—”

“Peace, child, I am still talking.” Jenell subsided immediately under Grip’s level stare. “Everything you did wrong was a matter of technique. And technique, Jenell, I can teach you. Technique I wouldn’t expect you to have known without that training. What matters is what was already inside you: the spirit, the will to stare your own tormentor in the face and say ‘fuck you, this ends with one of us destroyed.’ That you have to have to begin with. You’ve got it, girl. If you can just shut up and learn, I will turn you into a force that will scour the Basra Syrinxes of the world away like the grime they are and not even chip your fucking nails.”

Jenell nodded again, seeming unable to find words. Her expression conveyed it all, a blend of resolution and eager ferocity that made Grip smile.

“But there has to be a difference,” the enforcer went on, “between us and them. Syrinx hurt whoever she had to, to get whatever she wanted. We hurt people as well—badly, at times. The how and the why are hugely important, or we’re nothing but another group of monsters. You understand why we hurt people?”

Jenell hesitated, opened her mouth, then closed it again. She glanced sidelong at Grip to find the enforcer watching her closely. “I… No, never mind.”

“You looked like you were about to say something, there.”

“It’s… Probably not the right answer.”

“Jenell, it’s your first day as an apprentice. Your first hour. In a couple weeks I’ll start expecting you to know right answers. Right now I want to hear what you think.”

Jenell stared ahead, a glare at some unseen enemy descending over her features, but she nodded. “We hurt people, because some people just need to be hurt.”

The silence stretched out, until she nervously snuck another peek at Grip. To her surprise, the other woman was regarding her with an inscrutable little smile, her sweet bun dangling forgotten from her hand.

“Kid,” Grip said, patting Jenell firmly on the shoulder, “this is gonna work out.”

They continued on into the lights and shadows of the city, soon vanishing from view amid the press of people, machinery and magic that was Tiraas. Behind, outside Denise’s pastry stand, another figure chuckled, watching the pair fade with distance.

“Well, I’m glad somebody gets to walk away with a happy ending,” Vesk said aloud, turning back around with a grin and a wink. “But don’t you worry, I’ve seen to it the benefits will keep racking up. Oh, I didn’t help much with the paladins’ little gambit back there. Sure, the whole plan was mine, but for a fella like me, that was nothing. The tricky part was making Trissiny think she’d thought it up, but that girl needs the boost in confidence when it comes to her scheming skills. The only thing preventing her from being as crafty as her mother is her belief that she’s not. As for the rest? Sure, Darling could’ve arranged for all those Bishops to be present at that inconspicuous little prayer service, but I did it without expending any of his political capital—and he’s gonna need that in the coming days. I also tipped off a few reporters to be in the audience, more importantly. Between that and my own bards, the story that’s already spreading will be shaped by careful hands. By this time next week, they’ll be calling her Trissiny the Uniter, and all the political damage she did to her cult in Calderaas will be mended, and then some. The Sisterhood may have lost its Bishop to a painful scandal, but they’ve gained a hero—one who’s revered by far more than their own cult. And you all know how much I love a hero!”

“Oi.” Denise emerged from within the stall, wearing a grim expression and tapping a rolling pin against her palm. “Look, you’re not hurting me any, but I am trying to run a business here. I can’t have a guy in a doofy hat talking to himself in front of it. If you’re not gonna buy anything, clear off.”

Vesk looked over at her, blinking, then turned back the way he was facing.

“And what of all the faces we’ve met in passing? Like Denise the pastry chef, here. Or the Jenkins brothers, the feuding families of Sarasio? Ansheh in the Golden Sea, Lars Grusser the mayor of Veilgrad? Was Brother Ingvar always fated to become a hero in his own right, or did he wander too close to the web and get snared? Everyone is the hero of their own story, after all. But straying across the paths of the real Big Damn Heroes can be just the thing that elevates today’s bit character to the next episode’s protagonist. Who knows what our very own Denise might be called upon to do tomorrow? Heroism loves a humble beginning!”

“Hey,” Denise insisted. “If you need a place to stay the night, I can point you to an Omnist shelter. Or do I need to yell for the police?”

He winked at her. “But that, of course, is another story.”

With that, Vesk turned and sauntered away down the street in the opposite direction from Grip and Jenell, whistling an optimistic tune that hadn’t been heard aloud in some thirty thousand years.

Denise watched suspiciously to make sure he was leaving, then snorted, shook her head, and went back into her pastry stand. “This damn town…”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

14 – 32

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

On a typically overcast, slightly muggy summer day in Tiraas, Basra Syrinx returned to her office to find it gone.

She came to a stop in what appeared to be an empty stretch of hallway in the Temple of Avei, revealing confusion only by looking deliberately up and down. No one was visible nearby; the only noises were from the other end of the hall, where it terminated at a balcony overlooking a sizable atrium not far from the main sanctuary. Most significantly, the door to her office was not where it always was. Nothing but plain wall.

Her expression finally shifted from its usual placid mask to vague annoyance.

Syrinx reached up to run her hand along the wall, then grunted deep in her throat and nodded, finding the frame of the door with her fingers. Slowly she ran her hand along the invisible shape to the latch, which she turned. It was not locked or tampered with and shifted as smoothly in her hand as always, but she did not push it open or step in yet. Instead the Bishop resumed her tactile exploration, dragging her fingertips up the doorframe and along the top.

She disturbed some kind of crunchy dust sprinkled along the top of the door frame. No—not dust. Crushed dried leaves.

“Mm hm,” Syrinx muttered aloud, gripping the golden hilt of her sword with her other hand and continuing to sweep the dust away. Then suddenly, with a soft gasp, she jerked her fingers back, shaking her hand. There was no mark of any kind on her forefinger, but that had sure felt like—

She retreated one step and ignited her aura, flooding the hallway with radiant divine magic.

Immediately the illusion collapsed, the crumbled leaves atop the door frame evaporating into oily smoke, and the tiny elemental perched on the center chattered angrily at her in protest.

“I thought this was an extraordinary effort for a novice prank,” Syrinx said wryly. “Mousie, isn’t it? You’re not the only one who’s bitten off more than they can chew today. Your little buddy Herschel is going to be up way past his bedtime if he means to start trouble with me.”

Meesie hissed at her, puffing up her fur.

Not for nothing was Basra Syrinx an admired blademaster; her sword cleared its sheath faster than most human beings could have visually followed, much less countered, and she swept the blade in a precise arc that would have struck down even that tiny target—had Meesie not been other than human.

Meesie vanished in a puff of sparks as the sword’s tip slashed expertly through her space. Those sparks, instead of dissipating in the air, streamed away down the hall, where they coalesced again into the ratlike shape of the elemental, now perched on the shoulder of Herschel Schwartz, who had been standing there the whole time—not invisible, but simply not catching anyone’s notice until his familiar drew attention to his presence.

“I had honestly given up, boy,” Syrinx said mildly, sheathing her sword. “It’s been, what? A year? And you’re only now getting shirty with me. Please tell me you’ve spent all this time making actual preparations and not simply screwing up your courage. Unless your whole plan is to disappoint me one last time.”

“You know, Basra, that’s your problem in a nutshell. You always go right for the throat. Maybe you should relax, learn to play around a bit. Have some fun with life.” Schwartz’s tone was light, deliberately so. It contrasted with the rest of him—stiff as a flagstaff, shoulders gathered in tension, fists clenched and eyes glaring. Meesie hissed again, tiny flickers of fire racing along her fur.

“This isn’t a chapbook and you’re not a hero,” she said flatly. “You don’t stand there and banter at me. If the next thing out of your mouth is a suitably groveling apology, I will give real thought to not taking a complaint directly to Bishop Throale and having you reassigned to a two-man research temple in Upper Stalwar.”

In answer, he grabbed Meesie and tossed her forward. The elemental landed on the floor halfway between them and suddenly took up much of the hall space, in a leonine form almost the size of a pony. She had, at least, enough restraint not to roar and bring every Legionnaire in the temple running, but bared her teeth at Syrinx and growled. Loudly.

Unfazed by this display, Basra narrowed her eyes, then flicked a glance at the recently-disguised door of her office before returning her focus to Schwartz, ignoring the hulking fire elemental entirely.

“No,” she murmured. “You wouldn’t dare attack me openly—and especially not here. You have far too much intelligence and not nearly enough balls. What are you trying to distract me from, clever boy?”

He’d been prepped for this, but Schwartz was no schemer or politician. He hesitated for a moment, betraying uncertainty, before jutting out his chin and forcing a facsimile of a cocky grin. “Oh, is that what I’m doing? Interesting theory. How willing are you to test it?”

The dramatic effect, such as it was, suffered greatly from Meesie’s sudden reversal to her normal form. It had been much less than a minute; the divine magic saturating the temple put her at a serious disadvantage. Which, of course, underscored the Bishop’s point.

Syrinx quirked one eyebrow infinitesimally, then turned and strode away toward the stairs down to the atrium.

“Hey!” Schwartz shouted at her. “Are you that willing to bet I won’t just shoot you in the back?”

She didn’t bother to inform him that people who actually did things like that rarely gave warning, but she did activate a divine shield. It was a low-energy glow hugging her skin, well below the power of a typical combat shield, but it would conserve her magic and almost certainly suffice for any fae spells done at her, especially in the temple.

Syrinx arrived on the balcony just in time to spot her own aide being escorted through a door on the ground floor below. This wing of the temple, just behind the sanctuary, was mostly offices; that one was behind thick walls with just the one door positioned to provide space for guards to defend it, and used primarily for debriefings and interrogations of a relatively polite nature. Flight or fight risks would be detained in the cells in one of the basement levels. Those loyal to the Sisterhood who had something sensitive to reveal were handled here, where there was ready access to the temple’s main entrance and the medical wing.

“Covrin!” the Bishop snapped, her voice echoing through the columned atrium. All those present, which consisted of the Legionnaires escorting Jenell Covrin and a couple of passing priestesses, turned and craned their necks up at her.

Covrin met Syrinx’s eyes across the distance.

Then, she smiled. A cold, cruel smile, befitting Basra Syrinx herself—and the girl Jenell Covrin used to be before her “mentor” had (as she thought) beaten her into submission. Not acknowledging the Bishop further, she turned and strode through the door, which the nearest Legionnaire shut firmly behind her.

It was at that moment Syrinx registered that she was looking at Squad 391. Principia Locke turned from closing the door to give her the blandest, most placid smile she had ever seen.

The Bishop turned and stalked for the stairs, immediately finding her way blocked.

“Good afternoon, your Grace,” the dark-skinned young man before her said politely. “I wonder if I could have a moment of your time.”

She held onto her professional poise by a thread. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time at the moment. Excuse me.”

Syrinx moved to step around him, and he smoothly flowed aside to block her. Grunting in annoyance, she reached to shove him aside, and her hand impacted a hard surface which rippled with golden light, the shield dissipating immediately in a display of very fine control for a caster so young.

“I’m afraid I must insist,” he said, still in a courteous tone.

“Boy,” she grated, “do you have any idea—”

“I have many ideas,” he interrupted. “I’m Tobias Caine, and I require your attention for a moment, Bishop Syrinx.”

Basra went stock still, staring into his eyes. He gazed placidly back, awaiting her response, but she wasn’t really looking at him. Variables in this equation began to slot into place in her mind.

“I don’t have time for this,” Syrinx said curtly, and barreled right into him, flashing her own shield into place.

Toby was a martial artist and too deft on his feet to be so easily bowled down the stairs, retreating with far more grace than most would have managed in that situation, but the bubble of hard light surrounding her prevented him from making the best use of his skills, most of which relied on having something to grip in order to redirect her movements. He wasn’t without his own brute force methods, however, and before she’d made it two steps he conjured a staff of pure light.

Just like that, her divine shield wasn’t doing her much good, as Toby used his staff skillfully to poke, bat, and shove her backward, as if he were blocking a rolling boulder. This stalemate did not favor Basra; he was physically stronger than she and had vastly greater mana reserves; both staff and shield flickered whenever they impacted, but hers would break long before his.

“I realize you are impatient with this,” he said with infuriating calm while thwarting her efforts to descend as if this were all some sort of game. “But you need to think of your own spiritual health, Bishop Syrinx. Whatever happens next, the manner in which you face it will do a great deal to determine the outcome. Redemption is always—”

Basra abruptly dropped her shield and whipped her sword out, lunging at him.

As anticipated, instinct made him abandon his improvised jabbing and fall into a Sun Style defensive stance, which should have put her at a considerable disadvantage; his staff had much greater range than her short sword and her position on the stairs made it all but impossible to duck under it. That, however, was not her intent. Basra had trained against Sun Style grandmasters, which Toby Caine, for all his skill, was not yet. It took her three moves to position him, feint him into committing to a block for an attack from the right which never came, and then turn the other way and vault over the rail.

She had only been a few feet down the stairs; it was a drop of nearly a full story. Basra had done worse, and rolled deftly on landing with her sword arm held out to the side, coming to her feet barely two yards from Squad 391.

All six women were standing at attention, unimpressed by this. Locke, Shahai, and Avelea had composed features as usual, but the other three looked far too gleeful. Elwick, in particular, Syrinx knew to be more than capable of hiding her emotions. The fierce expression on her face boded ill.

“Step aside, soldiers. That is an order.”

“Mmmm,” Lieutenant Locke drawled. “Nnno, I don’t believe I will. Why? You think you’re gonna do something about it, Basra?”

“Lieutenant!” one of the two priestesses who had paused to watch the drama burst out, clearly aghast. “You are addressing the Bishop!”

“Am I?” Locke said pleasantly. “Well, if she still is in an hour, I guess I’ll owe her an apology. You just hold your horses, Bas. Private Covrin has a lot to go over.” She deliberately allowed a predatory, distinctly Eserite grin to begin blossoming on her features. “With the High Commander.”

Toby had reached the base of the stairs. Above, Schwartz arrived at the balcony rail and hopped up onto it, his robes beginning to rustle as he summoned some air-based magic. A subtle glow rose around Corporal Shahai.

Then another such glow, weaker but unmistakable, ignited around Locke. The elf’s grin broadened unpleasantly.

“Your Grace?” asked the second priestess uncertainly, glancing about at all this.

Basra Syrinx turned and fled.

Toby moved to intercept her, but Syrinx grabbed the shorter priestess by the collar of her robes in passing and hurled the squawking woman straight into him. Schwartz didn’t make it to the ground that quickly and Locke’s squad made no move to pursue, simply holding position in front of the office door. She made it to the atrium’s main entrance with no further opposition, bursting past two surprised Legionnaires standing guard on the other side.

Behind her, the office door opened, and it wasn’t Covrin or Rouvad who emerged to pursue her.

The main sanctuary of the Temple of Avei was crowded at that time of early afternoon, which meant there was an unfortunately large audience of petitioners from all over the Empire and beyond present to see their Bishop come streaking out of a rear door at a near run. This escalated into an actual run when she heard the pounding of booted feet behind her.

“You!” Basra barked at another pair of startled soldiers as she passed, flinging a hand out behind her. “Detain them!”

“Your Grace?” one said uncertainly, and had Basra been in less of a hurry she would have stopped to take the woman’s head off. Figuratively. Probably.

“BASRA SYRINX.”

At that voice, in spite of herself, Basra turned, skidding to a graceful halt.

Trissiny Avelea wasn’t running, but stalked toward her past Legionnaires who made no move to intercept her as ordered—unsurprisingly. The paladin and Bishop weren’t in the same chain of command, but the rank-and-file of the Legions would have an obvious preference if their orders contradicted each other. Trissiny was in full armor, fully aglow, and golden wings spread from behind her to practically fill the temple space. Gasps and exclamations of awe rose from all around, but the paladin gave them no acknowledgment, eyes fixed on Basra.

The Bishop inwardly cursed the learned political instincts which had overwhelmed innate survival instincts; she should not have stopped. As tended to happen when she was confronted with an overwhelming problem, her entire focus narrowed till the world seemed to fall away, and she perceived nothing but the oncoming paladin.

“Trissiny,” she said aloud. “You’ve clearly been listening—”

Those wings of light pumped once, and Trissiny lunged at her with astonishing speed, sword first.

Basra reflexively brought up her own weapon to parry, a divine shield snapping into place around her, and then two very surprising things happened.

First, Trissiny beat her wings again—how were those things functional? They weren’t supposed to be solid!—and came to a halt.

Second, Basra’s shield was snuffed out, untouched. Frantically, she reached inward for the magic, and it simply wasn’t there anymore.

Tiraas was no stranger to storms, but the clap of thunder which resounded right overhead was far greater in power than the light drizzle outside made believable.

“I actually thought you were too clever to fall for that,” Trissiny said, and despite the continuing presence of her wings, it was as if the avenging paladin had melted away to leave a smirking Guild enforcer in silver armor. “You just tried to call on the goddess’s magic right in front of a Hand of Avei who knows what you did. Congratulations, Basra, you’ve excommunicated yourself.”

Amid the crowd, more figures were emerging from that door at the back of the sanctuary. The Hand of Omnu, Schwartz… And all of Squad 391. With Covrin.

Of course. Obviously, Commander Rouvad wouldn’t go to a debriefing room for such an interview, not when she had a highly secure office to which she summoned people regularly. This entire thing… Syrinx realized, belatedly, how she had been baited and conned.

She filed away the surge of livid rage to be expressed later, when she had the opportunity to actually hurt someone. For now, once again she turned and bolted toward the front doors of the temple, past the countless witnesses to her disgrace.

The lack of any sounds of pursuit behind her began to make sense when she burst out onto the portico of the temple and had to stop again.

Another crowd was gathered in Imperial Square; while the figure waiting for her at the base of the steps necessarily commanded widespread attention, he also discouraged people from approaching too closely. At least the onlookers were keeping a respectful few yards back. Including a handful of Imperial military police who had probably arrived to try to disperse the crowd but also got caught up gawking at the Hand of Death.

Gabriel Arquin sat astride his fiery-eyed horse, who pawed at the paving stones with one invisible hoof and snorted a cloud of steam. His scythe dangled almost carelessly from his hand, its wicked blade’s tip resting against the ground. Hairline cracks spread through the stone from the point where it touched.

“There is a progression,” Arquin said aloud, his voice ringing above the murmurs of the crowd, “which people need to learn to respect. When you are asked by the Hand of Omnu to repent, you had better do it. Refuse, and you will be ordered by the Hand of Avei to stand down. That was your last chance, Basra Syrinx. Beyond the sword of Avei, there is only death.”

The crowd muttered more loudly, beginning to roil backward away from the temple. Nervous Silver Legionnaires covering its entrance clutched their weapons, bracing for whatever was about to unfold.

Behind Basra, Trissiny and Toby emerged from the doors.

Syrinx lunged forward, making it to the base of the stairs in a single leap. Immediately, Arquin wheeled his horse around to block her way, lifting his murderous-looking scythe to a ready position. Even disregarding the reach of that thing, it was painfully obvious she was not about to outrun or outmaneuver that horse. Any horse, but this one in particular looked unnaturally nimble.

She pivoted in a helpless circle, looking for a way out. The crowd was practically a wall; behind was the Temple, once a sanctuary and now a place she didn’t dare turn. Trissiny and Toby had spread to descend the steps with a few yards between them. One pace at a time, the noose closed in on Syrinx, the space between the paladins narrowing as the Hands of Avei and Omnu herded her toward the Hand of Vidius, and inexorable death.

Basra had spent too long as a cleric and politician to miss the deliberate symbolism. She could choose which to face: justice, death, or life. Tobias Caine was even gazing at her with a face so full of compassion she wanted to punch it.

She didn’t, though. Instead, Basra turned toward him, schooling her own features into what she hoped was a defeated expression—based on the way people’s faces looked in her presence from time to time, as it was one she’d never had occasion to wear herself. She let the dangling sword drop from her fingers, feeling but suppressing a spike of fury at the loss when the expensive golden eagle-wrought hilt impacted the pavement. Just one more expense to add to the tally of what the world owed her. Ah, well. After today, carrying around a piece of Avenist symbolism probably wouldn’t have worked, anyway.

Syrinx let Toby get within a few feet before bursting into motion.

His own instincts were well-trained, and though he still wasn’t a grandmaster, Basra’s martial skill heavily emphasized the sword. In a prolonged hand-to-hand fight, she might not have proved a match for Toby’s skill—and definitely not now that only one of them had magic to call on.

That dilemma was resolved, as so many were, by not fighting fair.

It took her a span of two seconds to exchange a flurry of blows, carefully not committing to a close enough attack to let him grab her as Sun Style warriors always did, all to position herself just outside the circle the three paladins had formed and push Toby into a reflexive pattern she could anticipate and exploit. Arquin was momentarily confused, unable to swing his great clumsy weapon into the fray with his friends that close or exploit the speed of his mount, but Trissiny—also a highly trained fighter—was already moving around Toby to flank Basra from the other side.

So she finally made the “mistake” that brought her within range of Toby’s grab, and allowed him to seize her by the shoulder and upper arm. And with his hands thus occupied, Basra flicked the stiletto from her sleeve into her palm and raked it across his belly.

Almost disappointing, she thought, how fragile a paladin was. Hurling him bodily into Trissiny was pathetically easy at that point, and in the ensuing confusion of shouts which followed, she dove into the crowd, instantly putting herself beyond the reach of Arquin, unless he wanted to trample a whole lot of bystanders, to say nothing of what that scythe would do to them. He probably didn’t. Even as the helpless sheep failed to do anything to stop her in their witless panic, paladins always had to take the high road.

Basra shoved through the throng in seconds, pelting right toward the only possible sanctuary that still awaited her: the Grand Cathedral of the Universal Church.


“Toby!” Trissiny lowered him gently to the pavement; he was bent over, clutching his midsection, from which blood had already spread through his shirt and was dripping to the ground at an alarming rate.

“No light!” Toby managed to gasp as Gabriel hurled himself to the ground beside him. “Not even an aura!”

“He’s right, stomach wounds are amazingly delicate,” Trissiny said helplessly, finishing easing Toby down so he could sit upright. “It may need a surgeon, if you accidentally heal something in the wrong place… We need healers here!” she bellowed.

“Keep to the plan,” Toby grunted around the pain, managing to nod to her.

“I can’t—”

“You do your job, soldier,” he rasped, managing a weak grin. “After her! Triss, we’re surrounded by temples and gut wounds take a long time to do anything. I’ll be fine. Get moving.”

She hesitated a moment, squeezing his shoulder.

“He’s right,” Gabriel agreed, taking up her position to hold Toby upright. “Go, Trissiny!”

“I’ll be back,” she said, and released him, rising and plunging into the crowd after Syrinx.

Help really did come quickly. Barely had Trissiny gone before the Imperial police were enforcing a perimeter around the paladins, and a priestess of Avei had dashed up to them. She knelt and gently but insistently lowered Toby to lie on his back, whipping out a belt knife to cut away his shirt so she could see the wound.

“Seems so excessive,” Toby grunted to Gabriel, who knelt there clutching his hand. “Coulda spared a lot of trouble if we’d just told her the plan was to let her get into the Cathedral…”

“Well, yeah,” Gabe said reasonably, his light tone at odds with his white-knuckled grip on Toby’s hand, “but then she wouldn’ta done it.”

“Oh, right. Inconvenient.”

“You need to hush,” the priestess said in exasperation, her hands beginning to glow as she lowered them to the wound. “And try to hold still, this will hurt.”


Trissiny managed to moderate her pace to an aggressive stride as she crossed the threshold into holy ground. The two Holy Legionaries flanking the door turned to her, but she surged past them without even so much as a sneer for their preposterously ornate armor.

The timing of all this had been very deliberate. A prayer service was in session—not a major one, so the great sanctuary was not crowded, but people were present. Most significantly, the Archpope himself stood at the pulpit, presiding. Justinian liked to stay in touch with the common people, more so than did many of his predecessors, and thus could often be found holding public appearances such as these rather than delegating them to priests. A mid-week afternoon service just didn’t command much draw, however, and the room was filled to barely a tenth of its capacity.

At the moment, nobody was getting any praying done, by the looks of things. Basra Syrinx was no longer in evidence, but her recent passage was obvious, thanks to all the confused muttering and peering around. At the head of the sanctuary, the Archpope himself was half-turned, regarding one of the rear doors into the Cathedral complex with a puzzled frown.

The ambient noise increased considerably when the Hand of Avei strode down the central aisle, sword in hand, the side of her silver armor splashed with blood.

“General Avelea,” Justinian said, turning to face her with a deep, respectful nod. “I gather you can shed some light on these events?”

“Where is Basra Syrinx?” she demanded, coming to a stop even with the front row of pews. It was downright crowded up here, most of the parishoners present desiring to be as near the Archpope as possible. The first two rows were entirely filled, with people who came from the world over, to judge by their varied styles of attire. Just to Trissiny’s left were three Omnist nuns wearing the heavy cowled habits of the Order of the Hedge, a tiny sect which had no presence in the Empire.

“You just missed her,” Justinian replied. For whatever reason, he continued projecting in exactly the tone he used for conducting worship. As did she, making their conversation clearly audible to the room. “She passed through here in apparent panic, demanded sanctuary, and retreated within. Toward her office, I presume. What has happened?”

“Syrinx will be removed from her office as Bishop the moment the formalities can be observed,” Trissiny replied, her voice ringing over the astonished murmurs all around. “She has been cast out of the faith by Avei herself as a betrayer, abuser of the trust of her position, and rapist. Moments ago she compounded her crimes by mortally assaulting the Hand of Omnu. I demand that she be handed over to face justice!”

The muttering rose almost to the level of outcry before Justinian raised both his hands in a placating gesture. Slowly, the crowd began to subside.

“I dearly hope Mr. Caine is being tended to?” the Archpope said with a worried frown.

Trissiny nodded once. “He isn’t so fragile, and healers were at hand.”

“That is a great relief.”

“Yes,” she said impatiently, “and so will be his attacker’s prosecution. Will you have your Legionaries produce her, your Holiness, or shall I retrieve her myself?”

“Justice,” he intoned, “as you know better than most, is not a thing which yields to demands. These are serious allegations, Trissiny. Gravely serious. This situation must be addressed calmly, rationally, and with full observance of all necessary formalities. Frustrating as these things are, they exist for excellent reasons. We cannot claim to dispense true justice unless it is done properly.”

“Please do not lecture me about the core of Avei’s faith, your Holiness,” Trissiny retorted in an openly biting tone, prompting another rash of muttering. “Justice is Avei’s province. Not yours.”

“And yet,” he said calmly, “Basra Syrinx has claimed the sanctuary of this church. I cannot in conscience fail to respect that, on the strength of mere allegation. Even from a person of your own prestige, General Avelea.”

“Am I to understand,” she said, raising her voice further, “that you are refusing to turn over a criminal to Avei’s justice, your Holiness?”

“You are to understand the law of sanctuary,” he replied. “It is observed by all faiths within the Universal Church.”

“Excuse me, your Holiness.” From the front pew near the Omnist nuns, another figure stood, wearing white robes with a golden ankh tabard. Bishop Darling inclined his head diffidently to the Archpope, but also spoke at a volume which was clearly audible through the sanctuary. “I have, personally, defended and protected Basra Syrinx from the consequences of her actions in the past, in pursuit of what I believed to be the higher good. I know you are aware of at least some of this. To that extent, I may be inadvertently complicit in anything she has done now. But a line has been crossed, your Holiness. If she has so violently erred that her own paladin has come after her in this way, I strongly advise against involving the Church in this matter.”

“You know the value I place on your council, Antonio,” replied the Archpope. “But I question whether this setting is the appropriate venue in which to discuss matters of this severity and complexity. General Avelea, would you kindly agree to join me in private to continue this conversation?”

“Some matters do deserve to be discussed in public, your Holiness,” Darling said before she could respond. “I speak in my capacity as Bishop. The Thieves’ Guild stands fully behind Trissiny Avelea in this matter.”

The murmuring swelled again, and once more Justinian raised his hands for quiet. As soon as he had achieved it, however, and before he could take advantage, another voice intruded.

“I concur.” Bishop Varanus rose from the pew next to Darling, towering half a head over the Eserite and turning his fierce, bearded visage on Trissiny. “Basra Syrinx is a rabid animal, and always have been. We all know this, and as Antonio has said, we all share guilt for whatever she has done. We have all failed to do our duty in getting rid of her, and now we see the consequences. Honor demands that this be addressed—now, and not later. In this one matter,” he nodded to the paladin, “the Huntsmen of Shaath stand behind Trissiny Avelea.”

“The Brethren of Izara stand behind Trissiny Avelea,” said yet another voice before the noise could gather too much, and despite her own diminutive appearance, Branwen Snowe could project her voice easily through the hubbub. “Basra is a deeply troubled person. I would prefer that she be offered some manner of help, if any is indeed possible—but if she has offended so severely that her own cult demands justice, this is clearly a matter of the safety of all around her.”

Beside Snowe, an old man with white hair rose slowly from his own seat. Though he looked frail, Sebastian Throale spoke clearly and as powerfully as anyone. “I am only passingly acquainted with Bishop Syrinx and have no personal opinion on this matter. But Trissiny Avelea has personally earned the trust and respect of my own cult—not a small thing, nor easy to do, given the relations we have historically had. If she deems this the right course of action, the Salyrite Collegium stands behind her.”

“I’m not gonna lie, I am astonished that this is even a question,” piped yet another individual, practically hopping to her feet in the pew behind Throale. Bishop Sally Tavaar, all of twenty-six years old, was widely considered a joke by everyone except her fellow Bishops, all of whom were too theologically educated to be less than wary around a bard who acted the fool. “That woman is a detestable cunt and always has been, and you all know it. It’s about damn time somebody did something about it! Only reason nobody has is everyone’s afraid of her, and you all know that, too. It’s just plain embarrassing that an avenging paladin is what it takes to deal with this. The Bardic College stands the hell behind Trissiny Avelea!”

“If I may?” Bishop Raskin was actually new to his post and not a widely known face yet, but he made a point of fully bowing to Trissiny. “These events are not a total surprise. The Hand of Avei has worked closely with those of the other Trinity cults, and I had some forewarning that events such as these might transpire. I have the assurance of Lady Gwenfaer herself that we have nothing but the greatest respect for our fellow paladin, and the Order of Vidius stands firmly behind her.”

Beside him, a slim woman with graying hair rose and inclined her head solemnly. “My colleague speaks truthfully. Omnu’s faith stands behind Trissiny Avelea.”

By that time, stunned silence had descended upon the Cathedral. It was allowed to hang in the air for a moment longer before Justinian spoke.

“Anyone else?” he inquired, slowly panning his serene gaze around the room. Trissiny and the assembled Bishops just regarded him in turn, as did the astonished crowd. It was not every cult of the Pantheon, but it was most of the biggest and most influential. More importantly, it included several which agreed about nothing, ever. This show of unity without the active encouragement of a sitting Archpope—in fact, in defiance of one—was all but unheard of. It might actually have been the first time a Shaathist Bishop ever publicly endorsed a Hand of Avei. Justinian simply continued after a short pause, though. “Very well. I hear and thank you for your counsel, brothers and sisters. Rest assured, your opinions I hold in the utmost regard, and this will weigh heavily on my deliberations on this matter. Those deliberations must occur, however; it is no less than conscience and justice demand. For the moment, sanctuary will be observed.”

“Are you actually serious?” Trissiny burst out. “You would really—”

“Did you believe,” Justinian interrupted, staring evenly down at her from his pulpit, “that aggressive demands and political maneuvering would be enough to eviscerate due process? Is that Avei’s justice, Trissiny?”

It was probably for the best that she had no opportunity to answer.

“BASRA!”

The entire room full of worshipers turned to stare at Jenell Covrin, who came striding down the central aisle in full Legion armor, trailed by Squad 391.

“Come out and face consequences, Basra!” Covrin roared, stomping right up to stand next to Trissiny. “It’s me, Jenell—your little pet. The one you thought a victim!”

“Young lady,” Justinian began.

“I did this, Basra!” Covrin screamed. “I’ve been gathering every secret you tried to bury. I brought them to the High Commander! I BROUGHT YOU DOWN! You can hide from the paladin, but you can’t hide from the truth.”

“Private,” the Archpope said more loudly, “this is not—”

“I DID THIS TO YOU!” Covrin roared, her voice all but rattling the stained glass. “For everything you did to me, I WON! And if you want to try settling it one more time, you’re gonna have to come out and face me. You’ll know how to find me, you bitch! Until then, I. FUCKING. WIN.”

“That is enough,” Justinian said flatly. “Sergeant at arms, please escort this young woman from the Cathedral.”

“Squad, form up!” Trissiny snapped. Instantly, the six members of Locke’s squad pivoted and snapped into a wedge, blocking off the aisle from the Holy Legionaires who had started toward them from the doors. They very wisely slowed as the Silver Legionnaires formed a menacing phalanx bristling with lances.

Four more Legionaries were approaching from the front of the Cathedral, but also did not get far.

“Grip! Duster! Ninetails!” Darling barked.

Instantly, the three Omnist nuns on the front row surged upright, hurling away their voluminous robes to reveal armed women in scuffed leather. All three Guild enforcers flowed into place in a triangle around Jenell and Trissiny, staring down the heavily armored Legionaries, who also came to a nervous halt.

“Come on, Covrin,” Trissiny said quietly. “Nothing else we can do here…for now. We will have to finish this later.”

She half-turned to meet Justinian’s eyes.

The Archpope nodded to her once, and smiled.

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >

14 – 31

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                             Next Chapter >

“Hey there. Feeling better?”

It was brighter, though not abrasively so, the ancient-looking stone hall lit well by a profusion of braziers and wall sconces. The warm glow was that of fire, not fairy lamps or whatever glaring illumination was used in Infinite Order structures. In fact, this resembled the feasting hall of some medieval king, made unusual only by the lack of any windows or doors. The three of them stood with their backs to the long tables, at the base of a dais, on which sat a throne, on which sat Vesk.

“What?” Gabriel choked. “I—we were… I mean, that was… What?”

“I really am sorry about that little trick with the flute,” said the god of bards, and he sounded the more sincere because he seemed subdued, even slightly depressed. Vesk projecting ordinary sincerity would have been just more of his obvious pantomime. “She was never going to let you out of her clutches without inflicting some kind of damage. I’d have forewarned you, but the key to bluffing someone with Scyllith’s skill at reading thoughts is to control what’s known by anyone in her presence.”

“The flute,” Trissiny said aloud, suddenly grabbing at her belt pouch. The Pipe of Calomnar was still there, sticking out slightly. “I blew it.”

“That’s the last thing I remember, too,” Toby agreed, glaring up at Vesk. “What did you do?”

“Short-term memory loss is a fairly common side effect of chaos exposure,” Vesk explained. “One I helped along a little in this case. You’re welcome. That kind of trauma is just not narratively useful, unless your protagonists need to learn to be properly fearful of chaos. You kids haven’t needed that particular lesson since Veilgrad.”

“What happened?” Trissiny demanded.

“What happened,” Vesk replied, straightening up and showing a little more animation in his features, “was that I spent several centuries preparing for this moment. I have sent adventurers on countless quests and personally interceded where I could, all to prime Calomnar so that I could render him at least a little lucid, and inclined to look favorably on his fellow gods and their servants, in a moment where it was needed. Truthfully all this I hadn’t begun to imagine when I started, but the god of chaos is just too good a trump card not to have ready in advance. And the process involved the creation of some great stories along the way. So, win/win!”

He paused, gazing down on them with a slight smile, as if waiting for a response or prompting to continue. All three paladins just stared back, and after a short moment, he resumed speaking.

“It was, as I said, a bluff. Scyllith knew you had the Pipe and that I gave it to you right before sending you down there. Chaos is the one thing she won’t dare face, because all the power in the universe does you no good if everything you try to do has a random effect. So from her perspective, it looked like that was the bluff: that if she tried to harm you, you could summon Calomnar and flip the board on her. Being Scyllith, she was willing to forego her own escape and even gave you the key back, all for the chance to goad you into calling Calomnar down on your own heads while she slithered off back into oblivion, out of his reach. Of course, she had no way of knowing I’d prepared matters so that he would simply bring you safely away.”

Vesk settled back in his throne, grinning at them in self-satisfaction.

“I don’t think it worked that way,” Gabriel said slowly. “She said she had her own plans for escape. And that she’d see us soon.”

“She was really adamant about us saying ‘hi’ to Tellwyrn for her,” Toby added. “That doesn’t sound like the action of somebody who expected us to get mulched by a mad god in a moment.”

Vesk’s grin faded in increments. “Well. How ’bout that. After all, what’s a more classic reversal than the great trickster’s ultimate ploy being turned around on him at the last second?” The god sighed softly and shrugged. “Then again, she could’ve been saving face. It’s hard to say what goes through the mind of a creature like that, but most of what she does is out of a blind compulsion to hurt people. I advise you not to think too hard on anything she told you.”

Suddenly, all three paladins were adamantly not looking in each other’s directions.

“Where are we?” Trissiny asked after a strained pause.

“My rockin’ bachelor pad,” Vesk said, leaning back into the throne again and gesturing at the rather stark hall, which didn’t seem to suit his personal aesthetic in the slightest. “Most gods don’t spend much time on the mortal plane, but hey! Everybody needs a little place to call home. Y’know, unwind, enjoy some privacy, store their collection of incredibly dangerous artifacts… And speaking of which. I believe you have my key?”

Slowly, Toby reached into his pocket. They key was, indeed, still there; he drew it out and held it up, firelight flickering gold across the pale mithril surface. The black jewel at its head had gone dark again.

“Answers first,” he said curtly. “After all this, we want the truth.” Trissiny and Gabriel nodded in firm agreement.

Vesk smiled very thinly for a moment before opening his mouth. “You can’t handle the truth.”

“You SON OF A—”

Gabriel had actually lunged halfway up the steps and swung his scythe down at the god before he was stopped, Vesk deftly catching the tip of the blade against the tip of his own finger.

“Sound and fury,” he said dismissively, “signifying nothing.” With a flick of the wrist he sent Gabriel staggering back down into his place.

“Who do you think you are?” Trissiny snarled, unconsciously gripping the hilt of her sword. “You sent us unprepared into that. And for what?!”

Vesk held up one finger. “Greater love hath no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

“We’re just pieces on a game board to you, aren’t we?” Toby stated. “You all but scripted that. Scyllith, Calomnar, the key. You just needed some patsies to do the walking for you. What if something unexpected happened to disrupt your clever plan? Against powers like that, what could we possibly have done? What could we even have attempted, to deal with an Elder Goddess and chaos itself?”

“Do,” advised Vesk, “or do not. There is no try.”

“That is the dumbest thing I ever heard anyone say,” Trissiny spat. “That sounds like what would come out if you fed shrooms to a talking donkey and asked it for the meaning of life!”

“You risked our lives and souls and who knows what on this,” Gabriel snapped, “refused to tell us what we were in for, promised answers at the end of it, and now you’re gonna go back on it? How can you possibly justify this?”

Vesk’s shrug was a dispirited, one-sided jerk of his shoulders, his smile the faintest, bitter twist of his lips. “Justifications only matter to the just.”

For a beat of silence, they all just stared at him.

“Oh, this is beyond pointless,” Trissiny said in disgust. “Maybe Salyrene can make something useful out of that key. Gabe, we may need your scythe. You in the stupid hat: are you going to show us the door, or are we going to make our own?”

“Oh, you want a door?” Vesk levered himself up off the throne, pausing to dust off his pants. “Doors I have. Right this way!”

He stepped around the throne, pausing to beckon them. Trissiny glanced at each of the boys in turn, then snorted loudly and started up the steps, her boots thudding down harder than was strictly necessary. Gabriel followed next, emphatically thunking his staff against the ground with each step.

There was, it turned out, a door in the room, hidden behind the tall throne. Vesk waited for them to catch up, wearing a vague little smile, and then led the way through. Beyond was a narrow corridor with an uncomfortably low ceiling, also lit by torches but paced widely enough that the light in most of it was dim.

Most surprisingly of all, they met someone else coming the other way.

“Hey, guys!” she said, raising a hand in greeting when she drew abreast of Vesk, who had to step to the side to make room. “Long time, no see!”

“Jenny?” Gabriel said incredulously. “From Sarasio?”

“I’m not exactly from Sarasio,” Jenny replied with a grin, reaching up to adjust the goggles perched atop her head. She was even in the same outfit as the last time they had seen her two years ago. “I do kinda miss it! Nice little town. But the story moved on, as they do.”

“You’re a Vesker,” Trissiny said in a tone of resignation.

“Nope,” Jenny said lightly. “Listen, take it easy on the boss, okay? He’s irritating as hell to deal with, I know it better than anybody. But show a little patience and he always makes it worth your while.”

“I thought Joe said you…left,” Toby said, frowning. “It wasn’t exactly clear to me what he meant by that, but he made it sound pretty final.”

“Yeah…that was something that needed to happen,” she said. “And speaking of which, I’m sorry I haven’t got time to stay and catch up, guys. But you have your own exposition to get to, and time waits for none of us. You take care, okay? Hopefully we can sit down and chat sometime before this great doom thing kicks off. Or maybe after. It’s always best to plan on surviving, that’s my policy. Till then, cheers!”

“Uh, bye, then,” Gabriel said somewhat belatedly as she squeezed past them. Vesk, having remained uncharacteristically silent through this exchange, was already moving off up the corridor again.

“Who exactly is she?” Toby asked, after Jenny had vanished up the darkened corridor behind.

“Jenny Everywhere is less a who than a what,” Vesk replied without turning or slowing. “I don’t say that to be disparaging! Seriously, she’s one of my favorite people. A good assistant, a magnificent living plot device, and pretty good company to boot. But she’s also not a person in the same sense that you are, or that I am, which of course are two very different senses. After we got rid of the Infinite Order—well, most of them—naturally one of the first things I did was start to root around in their archives, checking out all the literature they’d recorded, and…there she was. A specter haunting a surprisingly diverse set of stories.”

“So, she’s an Elder God creation,” Trissiny said grimly.

“Older,” said Vesk. “Altogether less sinister, and never terribly interesting to them. That’s a big part of what made me think she deserved a chance to be in the world, after all. But anyway, you wanted doors. Here they are!”

The corridor opened onto another grand hall, similar in dimensions to the throne room but longer and better-lit, with apparently modern fairy lamps both affixed to the walls and hanging from the ceiling in large iron chandeliers. A strip of crimson carpet ran down the center of the room, and lining both sides into the distance marched a series of apparently identical structures, each consisting of a square metal doorframe whose opening swirled with pale light, mounted atop a mechanical structure of inscrutable purpose, each with a single glowing Infinite Order control panel affixed to the side of the frame. The only apparent variation in them was that some few seemed to lack power, as they had no light effect in their main portals.

Vesk sauntered out into the room, pausing to spread his hands and twirl around before facing them with a wide grin. “Well? What do you think?”

“You absolute lunatic,” Gabriel breathed, aghast.

“What am I looking at, here?” Trissiny demanded.

“Doors,” Toby whispered. “There was one in the fabrication plant under Puna Dara.”

“Doors to where?”

“To alternate universes,” Gabriel explained, still staring around in horror. “The Elder Gods used these to spy on other worlds and steal technology from them. That is exactly as dangerous as it sounds, so they destroyed each one after using it. But Heilo, the god who made them, liked to make extra ones and hide them away. These, his hobby doors, go to universes where the favorite stories of the Elder Gods, mostly fictional realms created on the old world, are real.”

Trissiny’s eyes slowly widened as they panned around the room, drinking in the implications. There were dozens of these doors, at least; the hall was long enough that perspective made them hard to count as they marched toward its opposite end. “You absolute lunatic.”

“Oh, give me a little credit,” Vesk said dismissively.

“The hell you say!” Gabriel barked.

“I haven’t opened any of these,” Vesk continued. “What a disaster that would cause. The really good ones I haven’t even powered on to look through; way too risky, even for my blood. There are things in the Cosmere that would notice if they were being watched, some of which might be able to pry a gateway open from the other side. I certainly don’t want crazy nonsense like Comstock tears or the Subtle Knife ripping holes in our reality. No, don’t worry. While I’ll admit to some personal interest in watching worlds of story, I’ve been collecting these largely to make sure they were secreted away where nobody would ever find and open them. It’s not impossible that some are still out there, truly forgotten, but of every door whose existence I was able to find recorded, I have all but one. And the last is…fairly safe, for the moment, now that Fabrication Plant One is buried again and its Avatar on total lockdown.”

“Then what’s the point?” Toby exclaimed. “Why not just destroy them?”

“As a reminder.” Slowly, Vesk turned around again, but this time without showmanship, simply shuffling in a circle to sweep his gaze across his collection of dimensional gates. “As a warning. Because I hate them.” He came to a stop in profile to the paladins, glaring at one gate in particular with every evidence of deeply felt loathing. “Because I. Hate. These. Stories.”

They kept silent, just watching him. Vesk made himself easy to take for granted, with all his nonsense, but in his expression of real anger there came the mute reminder that he was, after all, a god. A being whose presence was inherently alarming when he was in this kind of mood.

“Do you have any idea how long people have lived on this planet?” he asked almost plaintively. “We can’t say for certain, because the ascension cycles aren’t exactly the same length every time. They’re all similar, though, within a margin of error. It’s been eight thousand years since the last; that’s roughly the period. There were three ascension cycles during the Infinite Order’s right. That rounds to about twenty-four thousand years. Twenty-four thousand. Can you even imagine such a period of time? Your own history barely reaches eight—and that’s more than twice as much recorded human history as there was in total when the I.O. originally left Old Earth. Twenty! Four! Thousand! Years! And do you know what we have to show for it?”

He whirled back to face them, flinging his arms wide to encompass the row of gateways. His expression now looked positively anguished.

“This shit right here! One teeny-tiny little slice of fiction, from just a couple of incestuously intertwined genres, produced over a period of a few decades on a world none of us will ever see, by a culture that’s been extinct longer than any of us even have a mental frame of reference to imagine. And this, this was what they did, for twenty-four millennia! I hate these stories so. Fucking. Much.”

“…they’re that bad, huh,” Gabriel prompted warily. Trissiny stomped on his foot.

“They’re not even bad,” Vesk answered, suddenly sounding exhausted. “Well, on a case by case basis. Some are truly exquisite. That last gate that I haven’t collected leads to such a clusterfuck of narrative incompetence I can’t even… Well, that was Scyllith’s personal favorite, if that tells you anything. No, it’s not the quality of them; that’s not the point. It’s what it means when a mere handful of stories are canonized into some sort of sick, pointless dogma.

“Twenty-four thousand years,” he repeated mournfully, “and these are the only stories recorded, the few from before that time. Twenty-four thousand years! All those stories!” Vesk’s voice rose in a pitch of agony; he squeezed his eyes shut and actually ripped off his floppy hat, hurling it away in agitation. “Gone! The hopes, the dreams and ambitions, of countless generations. Who were their heroes? What were their values? What tales comforted them in their oppression? What music did they create, what art? We will never know, because the Infinite fucking Order only wanted to hear their same few stories over and over again!

“When I was a mortal, I got to see a play put on. Oh, they called it a play; it was a re-enactment of the Lord of the Rings. The entire goddamned thing, put on to scale! The players, all those thousands of them, were the result of generations of genetic manipulation and selective breeding, all taking place over centuries to produce the requisite stock for one ridiculous play. They raised an island chain out of what’s now the Grand Mere to re-create Middle Earth. And then, when it was over, the fuckers ritually executed the entire cast and sunk the bastard right back to the bottom of the sea. Saints and archons above, the luckiest person involved in that was Tolkien himself for being dead so long before it ever happened. The sheer horror of it probably would have killed him! And that wasn’t even the first time.” He started pacing up and down in mounting fury, and the three paladins slowly edged back into the doorway. “Do you know why orcs exist as a race on this world? For another fucking production like that! Scyllith wanted to see a scale recreation of the Reign of Chaos saga and Meynherem wanted… I don’t even know what the hell he wanted from her, and it’s not like it matters at this point. At least they weren’t so successful at eliminating all the players that time. Because those damn omnipotent creeps just couldn’t let go of their fucking bedtime stories from eons ago!”

Vesk stopped pacing, and drew in a breath as if to calm himself. To judge by the force with which he blew it back out again, it didn’t work.

“That was the Infinite Order for you. Everything was impossibly grandiose in scale and most of it in service to the most ridiculous bullshit imaginable. And let’s be honest, stuff like that was far from the worst they did. But it’s what sticks most in my mind, because for all their flaws, that was the one fixation that I think reveals the most about what went wrong with the Elder Gods.”

He paused again, and heaved another deep breath.

“And what’s so close to going wrong with us.”

The three of them exchanged a few wary looks.

“Uh,” Gabriel said very carefully, “are you…”

“No, I’m not going to stage a play with thousands of custom-bred expendable extras,” Vesk said irritably. “Even if you think I would do such an asshat thing—and after the ringer I’ve put you though, I won’t take that personally—there’s no audience or infrastructure for such nonsense now, thankfully. Avei would wear my ass for a boot if I even suggested it, and more power to her. It’s just… Well, let me back up.”

He began pacing again, though this time his expression was introspective.

“Before they designed what we now think of as godhood, the Infinite Order lost a few people to their earliest ascension process. Which, ironically, was the best one. Oh, they weren’t accidents and they didn’t kill anybody; they just discovered that a being which has transcended all physical boundaries is left with a completely different set of motivations than those they started with, which it seems don’t included faffing around to do mad science or rule planets. They managed some brief communications with the very first ascended before they just…lost interest. Floated off to explore the universe. Hell, who wouldn’t? So, given what they were trying to do and what their own prejudices were, the I.O. redesigned their method to apply limitations. To impose structures on future ascended and make sure they would retain the same basic personalities and motivations as they had in life. Ironically, it was a variation of the same change we later used to kill the bastards off, which tells you something about how smart a thing it was to do in the first place.”

“Gods,” Trissiny whispered. In context, that could have been taken a number of different ways, but Vesk just nodded at her in understanding.

“And that’s it, at the heart of the matter,” Vesk said quietly. “The unwillingness to change became the inability to change. I complain about stories, about how a few introverted scientists wouldn’t let go of the old tales that brought them comfort in their youth even after they came to enormous power. But in the end…that’s everything. They would not let go. Couldn’t move on. They were prisoners of their own ideas. And we gods, today, are likewise chained.”

He stopped in his pacing, turning to them, and shrugged. “That’s the first part of the answers I promised you. I’m not honestly sure how much you can do with all that, but thanks for listening to me vent. What you care about, of course, is the world now and how all this affects your lives directly. So keeping in mind that gods are, by their very nature, constrained… Don’cha just love Archpope Justinian?”

They blinked at him vacantly in the silence which followed. Vesk just regarded them with a beaming smile.

“Gwha?” Gabriel burbled at last.

“Great guy, Justinian,” Vesk continued idly. “A real stand-up fellow. Why, I can’t think of a single thing about him that I would change! He’s just…perfect. And that…seems a little odd, y’know? I have never in all my long existence felt uncritically positive about anything or anyone. But hey, I’m sure it’s fine! Cos, y’see, when I stop and think about Justinian himself I’m just sure it’s nothing, because he’s such a great Archpope.”

“…oh, holy shit,” Trissiny whispered. “He didn’t.”

“Of course he did,” Toby grated. “He would.”

“But how?” Gabriel protested.

“Someone was in that facility,” Trissiny said slowly, “just a few years before us. There’s no reason to go in there unless…you want to mess around with the machinery that created the gods.”

Toby held up the key again. “And now…there’s a record of what happened.”

“Yep,” Vesk said laconically. “That’s a real useful key for that reason alone. But you’ll be happy to know I didn’t risk your lives just for that. Let me pitch a scenario for you guys, the backdrop of a potentially rollicking good story. Let’s say, on one hand, you’ve got three classic young heroes. Brave, selfless, just flawed enough to be interesting, and so on. Chosen by the very gods and living in a time when great things are set in motion. An oncoming great doom, so to speak. It’s all very prototypical, see what I mean?”

“Right, right, you’ve made your point,” Gabriel said impatiently.

“But!” Vesk held up one finger. “On the other hand. Say you’ve got a man with a mysterious past, who had stumbled upon a great injustice. A lie and an abuse of power, woven into the very fabric of creation itself—into the very natures of the gods. Suppose this man sets out to correct that abuse by any means necessary, and the path on which it takes him will test his conviction to its very limits, force him into compromises and painful actions that teeter on the very brink of villainy.”

Trissiny narrowed her eyes. “You’re not saying—”

“I’m not done,” Vesk interrupted. “All that’s just backdrop: here is the important question. In this hypothetical story I’m describing, of those two options, which is the protagonist?”

Toby frowned at him, then turned to the others. “…I don’t get it.”

“He’s a god,” Gabriel said quietly, still staring at Vesk. “He’s constrained by his nature. He is, specifically, the god of stories.”

“And so,” Trissiny whispered, “it matters very much to him who is the protagonist in whatever story is unfolding. Because he can’t root for the villain. Can you?”

“Oh, I’ve rooted for a lot of villains over the years,” Vesk said with a sigh. “Just…no antagonists. Ask Teal to explain the difference if it’s unclear; she may as well make herself useful for something. You get it, though, Trissiny. I sent you three on the classic hero’s journey. You have faced challenge after challenge, each of which taught you a ham-fisted lesson. You’ve rescued a princess…well, after a fashion…scaled a tower of trials, hobnobbed with scurrilous underworld types who turned out to have hearts of gold, confronted the very face of evil itself… And at the end, you descended deep into the darkness, into the lair of the monster, only to find that the true monsters were lurking within your own hearts.”

Gabriel lowered his eyes; Toby’s fists clenched at his sides.

After a moment’s pause, Trissiny wrapped one arm around each of them and pulled both boys against her sides, squeezing reassuringly.

“These things may seem arbitrary and frankly pointless to you,” Vesk said solemnly. “But to me? They describe the very shape of reality. The three of you had the potential to be protagonists, but hell, so does your entire social circle. I made you heroes. In a very specific and arbitrary way, yes. But for my purposes, it’s what counts. And for your purposes, it means that in the confrontation which is inevitably coming, you may find yourself facing off with someone who has gone to great care to lay his groundwork, and at that crucial moment, thanks to this bullshit quest of mine, will find one specific patch of it missing. And the proof that it matters is that now, when I contemplate the prospect of you kids putting one over on everyone’s favorite Archpope… I can say with all honesty that I’m rooting for you.”

“Scyllith said there was a secret,” Toby said, staring intently at him, even as he slipped an arm around Trissiny’s shoulders. “One that the field of divine magic itself would kill anyone who learned it. Something to do with how the gods ascended.”

“Obviously, that’s a pointless question, since if there was such a thing I wouldn’t confirm it,” Vesk said, nodding emphatically. “In the purely theoretical instance that some such thing were true, though, I’d advise you to be very careful what you poke your nose into. Your three—well, four, I guess—personal patrons would try to protect you, and there would be several among the Pantheon who would bitterly resent such a provision existing and gladly work to thwart it, but…gods are gods. As you’ve just been told in some considerable detail, we can’t always do what we’d want.”

“But,” Gabriel said slowly, “some of you try to work around it.”

“A person operating under a disadvantage is no less a person,” Vesk said with an amiable shrug, grinning lopsidedly at them. “Sometimes it’s handicap and hardship that does the most to motivate us. In any story, what the hero can’t do is much more interesting than what they can.”

Toby held up the key, bouncing it once on his palm and looking over at the other two. Both of them nodded at him. Nodding back, he hefted it and lightly tossed the key to the god of bards, who snagged it deftly out of the air.

“Pleasure doin’ business,” Vesk said cheerily. “Now then! We’re not quite done here—after all, a good story would be cruelly diminished without a satisfying denouement. I believe I did promise to aid you with your scouring of the Shire.”

“Uh huh,” Trissiny said in a dry tone. “And are you going to bother explaining what that means now?”

Vesk grinned delightedly, positively bouncing on the balls of his feet in barely-restrained excitement. “Oh, trust me, Trissiny. I think you will like this.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                              Next Chapter >